The ‘Magic’ behind superstition

Darryl Bachmeier
Aug 5, 2019

Have you ever instinctively said ‘bless you’ to someone who sneezed around you? Or noticed that your heart skipped a beat when someone told you that your flight was scheduled for the ‘13th’?

Think about these instances for a moment, and you will quickly come to the conclusion that there is nothing logical about saying ‘bless you’ to someone who sneezes, or about being anxious that your flight is on the 13th day of the month.

Yet, many people continue to do both of these things. Superstitions like these are more common than we might think, and even though we may not realize it, most of us tend to indulge in superstitious practices in some areas of our lives.

What are superstitions?

A superstition is a belief that two seemingly unrelated events have some kind of causal relationship between them. For example, many people believe that it is a harbinger of bad luck if a black cat crosses your path.

On the surface, there seems to be no rational connection: why would the natural movement of an arbitrarily colored animal cause harm to you? Despite knowing about this fallacy, you will still find yourself avoiding a black cat if one happened to show up in your way.

Where do these come from?

There is more chaos in this world than we know how to explain or deal with. In the face of this uncertainty and unpredictability, we humans seek ways to control the unending list of factors that can affect our lives.

That is why many years ago when someone noticed that a black cat crossed the path of another person and then that person went on to face unexplainable tragedy and huge losses in life, the conclusion drawn was that black cats crossing your path is definitely something you should avoid. Since then, this superstition has been passed down through the channels of both culture and religion and is still something that many people firmly believe in.

This begs an important question: we live in the age of science and reason. We know more about the natural laws of the world and why things like natural disasters happen, and we’ve found out that they definitely don’t happen because your friend Sam passed from under a ladder.

Why do we still believe in them?

Jane Risen, a member of the American Psychological Association and a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth in Illinois, has ventured some answers in this regard. She says we act on our superstitious beliefs despite being aware of their irrationality through a process she calls ‘acquiescence’.

Acquiescence is when a part of our brain tells us that something we believe in or are doing has no logical basis, and yet we choose to ignore that voice and continue to act out our superstitious beliefs.

However, there is more to this than just bugs in our cognition. Another reason why we choose to act on superstitious beliefs is that in our minds, the cost of acting on the belief is tiny compared to the potential cost of not acting on it, especially if the superstition (unexpectedly) turns out to be true.

The thing is, you would rather not take the chance of having to face bad luck for years if all you had to do to avoid it was to not pass from under a ladder, or turn away when you saw a black cat in your path. If there was such an easy alternative, you’d rather not try to ‘tempt fate’ at all.

Is there any benefit to being superstitious?

As it turns out, superstitions could not have survived for centuries if there was no benefit to believing in them and acting according to them.

Reduce anxiety

One of the great benefits of superstitions is that they reduce anxiety in the face of unpredictability. By giving us a (false) explanation for the occurrence of otherwise unexplainable and tragic events, they help us regain a sense of control and agency, lowering our anxiety about our future and safety.

They make us believe that we can prevent bad events from happening in our lives by observing simple rituals and taking certain actions. Albeit ungrounded, these beliefs made survival a whole lot easier for our ancestors.

Improve performance

Do you remember when (in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) Harry tricked Ron into believing that he had drunk a ‘luck’ potion and that he had luck by his side? Ron, simply because he believed that luck was on his side, ended up as the star performer of their Quidditch match.

This is the ‘magic’ behind superstitious beliefs. People who carry lucky charms or believe in lucky possessions do not actually get luckier - their belief increases their self-confidence and composure, and so this psychological advantage is enough to give them a real advantage in whatever activity they get into, improving their performance.

It’s okay if you believe in superstitions

Many people feel that you need to be an irrational and poor thinker to believe in and act on superstitions. However, as you’ve seen, it’s something that comes quite easily to our minds, and can actually be beneficial and performance-boosting in many situations.

So remember that it’s totally okay if you must take a cold shower, recite a prayer, or wear a specific color before your next interview, exam, or sports event. Who knows, it might be the reason you end up performing at your best!

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