black catAre you superstitious? Do you knock on wood? Wear a lucky jersey when your favorite team plays? Believe deaths occur in three’s or use your horoscope as a life guide?

If so, you are not alone. It may surprise you to know that according to a 2012 CBS News poll, 51% of Americans endorse “knocking on wood” to insure good luck or ward off adversity, and 17% of Americans believe in the power of sports superstitions, like fans wearing lucky hats, to determine the outcome of a game!

What are Superstitions?

Superstitions are defined as beliefs or practices groundless in themselves and inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by the community to which one belongs (Marmor, 1956).

In his book, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstitions, research psychologist, Dr. Stuart Vyse notes the given our scientifically advanced Western society, superstition may seem paradoxical because our understanding of the natural world tells us that certain signs and gestures can not affect the events at which they are directed. He recognizes, nonetheless, that superstitions continue to be believed, passed down and are extremely common.

The Question is WHY?

While a number of reasons can be proposed, one central dynamic that seems to bear on the history of man’s belief in superstitions is the attempt to cope with uncertainty, be it about the possibility of rain in a poor village or winning the final round in a prestigious golf tournament.

As such, superstitious beliefs and gestures are acquired in different ways throughout our lifetime.

Family and Folklore

Often they are passed down as part of the fabric of family or culture.

  • They might include wedding rituals, admonitions against baby showers, avoidance of black cats or worries about Friday the 13th.
  • People will tell you that in their culture dreams can be an important foreboding and must be shared. Others might tell you that they may not believe it but– they never put a purse on the floor (you can go broke); never let a single female take the last portion of food (she will end up an old maid) and always bury a statue of St. Joseph upside down if you are trying to sell your home—just in case.

Sports, Exams, Anxiety and Coincidence

Certain circumstances in which our own skills or performance change uncertainly to a win or loss, lend themselves to a broad acceptance of rituals.

Sports and performance events are fertile ground for superstitious behavior.

  • Stuart Vyse in his book Believing in Magic reports the elaborate rituals of famous baseball player Wade Boggs who in addition ate chicken every night for 20 years to ensure success.
  • You have likely observed the rituals of athletes and may yourself have a special ritual before taking a foul shot, serving a tennis ball or taking a golf swing. You may have a special hat, jersey or pair of shoes that your wear to ensure success.
  • Also underscored with high anxiety and expectation, academic tests from grade school to professional studies invite rituals from lucky pens to special food, clothing, etc.

Operant Conditioning

  • Such rituals get set when in a state of high anxiety something good or bad happens in connection with our having taken some action.
  • We shoot our best golf game wearing a certain hat. We are “ on fire “ with three point shots the night we wear a headband. We ace the test the day we stop to get a latte coffee. We conclude – we need these to win.
  • From a conditioning paradigm perspective, such rituals stay in place because of selective attention to the wins and what is called intermittent re-enforcement i.e. for as long as we occasionally win, it is very difficult to extinguish the behavior. We would have to never win again before concluding that this is not a lucky hat and forget the latte.

New Findings “ Positive Luck Enhancing Superstitions”

Notwithstanding the “ belief in magic” associated with such rituals, a recent study has shown that belief in rituals can, in fact, improve performance in a skilled activity.

In the famous, 2010 golf ball study by Lysann Damisch and colleagues, two groups were told to putt a ball into a cup. The group that was told that the balls they were given had been “ lucky” that day scored significantly better than the other group who were told nothing and handed the same balls.

We must consider that when a skill is involved, the thought that you are wearing your lucky sneakers, doing your ritual, or using your lucky pen may well increase confidence, reduce anxiety, allow more focus and result in improved performance. But…

Maladaptive Rituals

Superstitious rituals in sports, testing taking or related life events become maladaptive when the belief in the “ magic” of the hat, pen or ritual obscures the person’s actual functioning, preparation and belief in self.

If an athlete decides they can’t play because they can’t find their headband or a student spends so many hours looking for his lucky pen that he wastes hours of studying, their confidence in self becomes hostage to their superstition.

Uncertainty, Religion and Superstitions

  • According to expert, Stuart Vyse, people often ask about the connection of religion and superstition. In my personal and clinical experience, I have found that belief in both and an overlap often occur in the face of catastrophe-when uncertainty becomes horrific reality.
  • In the aftermath of 9/11, people went to their churches. They needed their spirituality and belief systems to make meaning of the unimaginable, to feel safe, to appeal to a higher power, and to find a way to cope.
  • In the sudden and tragic death and disappearance of thousands, many also sought ways to connect one more time, to be soothed by a sign or a message. As such they sought out psychics and readers who might offer that.
  • With time to grieve, many came to know that they were the best source of knowing and of remembering their loved one.

Superstitions to cope with the uncertainties of life are common and universal. Perhaps on some level we will always use them. As such, it is importance to keep in mind the balance of what they take and what they give. Expanding on the sentiments of Stuart Vyse,

We never want a belief in magic to take away a belief in the magic of ourselves.