Why Superstitions Still Affect People
Sat, April 17, 2021

Why Superstitions Still Affect People

When it’s Friday the 13th, many people from different parts of the world still avoid going about their usual business for fear that it may bring them “bad luck” / Photo by: Peppermint Joe via Shutterstock

 

When it’s Friday the 13th, many people from different parts of the world still avoid going about their usual business for fear that it may bring them “bad luck.” Those who participate in superstitious thinking also actively avoid breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, and seeing black cats. Another belief is to knock on wood to chase away evil spirits or prevent the reversal of good luck. Despite knowing that superstitions are not true, why then does it still affect many people?

Superstitious Thinking and Its Psychological Mechanisms

Folklore historian Steve Roud explains that most people do not believe in superstitions and do not want to act based on these beliefs so much. Yet, even rational and highly educated people feel uncomfortable when they encounter something that is considered bad luck.

In 2013, the University of Hertfordshire’s psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman surveyed 2,068 people. He concluded that those who are superstitious are people who tend to worry about life, have a low tolerance for ambiguity, and have a strong need for control. The survey, which was detailed by online newspaper iNews, revealed that people are most superstitious about touching wood as 74% of the participants do this. The UK Superstition Survey also revealed other popular UK superstitions as follows: crossing fingers, not smashing mirrors, carrying a lucky charm, having a superstitious belief about the number 13, and avoiding ladders.

Worldwide, the number 13 superstition has the biggest effect. Property sales are cheaper for number 13 addresses, many buildings have no 13th floor, and some airplanes have a missing row 13. But not all people share the same belief as superstitions are personal things. American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, for instance, likes number 13. She explained that she was born on the 13th and her first album went gold in 13 weeks. This is why in her mind, whenever that number comes up in her life, it's a good thing.

Folklore historian Steve Roud explains that most people do not believe in superstitions and do not want to act based on these beliefs so much / Photo by: Gagarin Iurii via Shutterstock

 

Just a Trick the Brain Plays

In 2015, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business study explained that when superstition still influences one’s behavior and thoughts although the person knows it to be untrue, it seems that the brain cannot reverse the irrational thinking. 

There are two ways the brain processes an irrational thought. The first is to process the thought and the second is to correct it. This is called “ brain acquiescence," which means that the brain is not automatically following the detection of the irrational thought. 

Attempt to Control the Future

Meanwhile, Kansas State University’s associate professor of psychology Don Saucier shared via press release platform Newswise that superstitions are behaviors that people do in an attempt to control or affect their future. It helps alleviate their anxiety and improve their chances in some situations. For instance, if they did not train well for a sports competition, the person may just likely cross their fingers and hope for the best. Some are aware that watching a game from a certain place will not really affect the result of the game but still do so in the hope that things will go well.

Anxiety expert Paul Foxman Ph.D. shared that the key is to pay attention to your thinking, especially those who experience obsessive thoughts, trouble sleeping, excessive worry, and tension. People who find themselves in repetitive ritualized behavior that is already out of control need help from a therapist or a doctor. 

There are two ways the brain processes an irrational thought. The first is to process the thought and the second is to correct it / Photo by: Panchenko Vladimir via Shutterstock

 

Belief in Common Superstitions: Statistics

Database company Statista published the results of its 2019 survey on fear and superstition in the US. When asked if they believe that a four-leaf clover is lucky, 27% of the respondents said yes. Other superstitions that Americans believe include: breaking a mirror is bad luck (23%), knocking on wood will bring good luck (22%), walking under a ladder is bad luck (21%), telling someone a wish means it won’t come true (19%), opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck (18%), a rabbit’s foot is lucky (14%), the number 13 is unlucky (13%), black cats are bad luck (11%), and spilling salt is bad luck but can be reserved by tossing salt over the shoulder (14%).

Market research firm YouGov’s research also reveals that young people, ages 18 to 29, are most likely to consider themselves superstitious (18%) while those 65 years old and above are less superstitious (6%). In the age group 30 to 44, 15% of them believe they are superstitious, 56% said they are not, while 28% said, “it depends.” For the age group 45 to 64, 11% admitted they are superstitious, 66% said no, while 23% answered, “it depends.” 

Some luck traditions have found their way to becoming normal behaviors too, including not seeing a bride’s wedding dress before her wedding day.

It may be impossible not to read patterns at random events but superstitious thinking should not be taken too far.  Making important decisions based on these beliefs alone and without rational thought may lead you to make wrong decisions.