The everyday magic of superstition
Ella Rhodes speaks to psychologists in an attempt to understand the widespread and persistent nature of apparently irrational beliefs.
12 October 2016
Superstitions fascinate me. There is something beguiling, folkloric and fantastical about them, mundanely magical. They seem to whisper of pagan rites in ‘Merrye Olde Englande’, to speak of a time we rarely hear about in everyday, metropolitan Britain.
Yet they steadfastly remain in our culture. English poet John Clare saw superstition as a long-standing tradition, left behind by ancient civilisations. In 1825 he wrote that these beliefs were ‘as old as England’, and that despite being difficult to trace historically, superstitions remain ‘as common to every memory as the seasons, and as familiar to children even as the rain and spring flowers’. He continued his sentimental appraisal thus:
Superstition lives longer than books; it is engrafted on the human mind till it becomes a part of its existence; and is carried from generation to generation on the stream of eternity, with the proudest of fames, untroubled with the insect encroachments of oblivion which books are infested with.
Our own audience, with their evidence-based approach to life, may scoff at the very idea of superstitions. Are they silly traditions held by small-minded folk, or can psychology actually surprise us about their use, meaning and even effectiveness? I have been digging out some of the research, and talking to those working in the area, to reveal the everyday magic of superstition.
Where do superstitions come from?
Although this might seem a relatively simple question – after all, we can trace the origins of words with some precision – rummaging around in folklore and verbal histories to find out where certain customs, traditions and superstitions stem from is surprisingly difficult.
For example, some Icelanders still hold great reverence for a group of elves or fairies called the huldufólk (hidden people). These elves are treated with great respect, and their apparent existence has halted roadworks in their tracks and led to demonstrations against moving certain boulders for fear of inciting the fairies’ wrath. In a 2013 article on the topic (tinyurl.com/o75kf2r), Ryan Jacobs writes that one of many potential origins of this belief was that Vikings were the first settlers on the island, and they may have felt a need to have ‘conquered’ something or someone. Perhaps, he ponders, the beliefs reflect the harsh landscape the new settlers were confronted with – glaciers, geysers and volcanoes – which must have seemed alien and even slightly magical.
Happily, some of our superstitions are more historically grounded and have faded from memory – when diagnosing death was even less of an exact science than it is now, and being buried alive was less of a niggling fear than a real possibility, myths of vampires who stalked the night struck fear into the some. Upon death, to avoid any attempt at vampirism, corpses may be impaled on iron rods. One was even found to have been buried with a brick in its mouth just in case (see tinyurl.com/z4bbddt). Thankfully, our only real vampire-related fear these days is the potential for another Twilight novel.
Superstitions are not only tricky to trace but also to define. In the fascinating Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, author Steve Roud points out that the word superstition has often been used as a derogatory way in belittling another’s belief. He counters the suggestion that superstitions are based in the ancient histories of Britain and Ireland – many customs are much more modern. Under the broad definition of ‘superstition’ he includes luck, omens or signs, occult powers or beginnings – which he describes as a belief that the situation surrounding the beginning of a journey or project will predict how it will continue, a belief that situations surrounding the start of a person’s life will predict their character or prosperity, and the belief that coincidences have a larger amount of significance than random events.
In a psychological context, definitions surrounding superstitions become murkier still. In 2007, Lindeman and Aarnio pointed out that the overall picture of superstition research is ‘unclear and remains to be adequately described and explained’. They point to a lack of conceptual clarity and the difficulty in differentiating between superstition, magical thinking and supernatural beliefs. They put forward a theory that draws on developmental psychology to suggest that we gain three areas of knowledge as children that help us to make sense of the world – intuitive knowledge about physics, psychology and biology. They suggest that as adults we can still confuse these ontological categories – for example by giving inanimate objects thoughts and feelings.
Superstitions seem to be based on early intuitions we make about the world, linked more to intuitive than analytical thinking. Lindeman and Aarnio argue that these beliefs, typical of pre-school children, are preserved and activated among adults, even though their rational knowledge has devalued those representations. Using a survey they found that superstitions could be defined as ‘ontological confusions’ – superstitious people gave more physical and biological attributions to mental phenomena, such as agreeing that thoughts can touch objects. They also assigned more mental attributes to water or furniture – seeing them as having knowledge, desires and a soul. They also saw certain weather events or computer failures as having a purpose.
All of this may go some way to explaining why we might have superstitions, but are any of us particularly prone to this sort of belief?
The superstitious person… or pigeon
Superstition is seen in most cultures, and isn’t even limited to humans. For example, the behaviourist B.F. Skinner famously demonstrated in 1948 that if pigeons displayed a behaviour that accidentally correlated with the presence of food, they would continue to show that behaviour despite food being released at set intervals. One pigeon would turn while the other would sway its head in an attempt to get food. In other words, a superstitious response had revealed itself through operant conditioning.
But what kinds of people are most likely to be superstitious? Certain groups have been obvious targets for research due to their famously superstitious nature – sportsmen, sailors, gamblers and college students in the midst of exams, have all featured heavily. Yet research seeking clear-cut demographics for superstitious people has led to mixed results. It seems that women tend towards being more superstitious, and education leads to more scepticism; yet people with many years of education can still be superstitious. Those with lower self-efficacy tend towards superstition, and those with a more external locus of control and a propensity for pessimism are also more likely to have such beliefs.
However, due to the small sample sizes and the self-report measures often used in this type research, it is impossible to state with certainty that any one group may be more or less superstitious. So we move to the main question – why are people superstitious? And, importantly, why do smart, logical adults persist with superstitions despite regularly experiencing their lack of effect?
Why are people superstitious?
I spoke to Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic; The Psychology of Superstition (2014, OUP) and formerly Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College. He told me he became fascinated with the question of why such a sophisticated species engages in irrational and occasionally self-defeating behaviour. ‘While I was still in graduate school I became fascinated with some early experiments done by Barry Schwartz showing that when exposed to random schedules of reinforcement while working at a computer, intelligent college students would make up fanciful theories about how the rewards were delivered. They made up theories that were similar to superstitions, and eventually I did some similar experiments.’
But why do superstitions stick around? Vyse suggests they give comfort, in the form of illusory control in situations where it may be lacking. He adds: ‘There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit that can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition. The absence of control over an important outcome creates anxiety. So, even when we know on a rational level that there is no magic, superstitions can be maintained by their emotional benefit. Furthermore, once you know that a superstition applies, people don’t want to tempt fate by not employing it. In my book, I cite the case of a famous chain letter that went through the journalistic community in the United States. Many of these journalists knew that it was bunk, but they did not want to tempt fate by not copying the letter and sending it on. As crazy as it was, I am sure passing on the letter made them feel better.’
Vyse distinguishes between positive and negative superstitions. Those that involve carrying a lucky charm or the like are often harmless and may even provide a small psychological advantage; he says: ‘I don’t think a rabbit’s foot will help you win at roulette, because it’s a game of pure chance, but it might help you perform better in a job interview. In contrast, I see no upside to negative superstitions, such as the fear of cats or the number 13. We would all be better off if no one had ever taught us those anxiety-provoking superstitions.’ He also suggests that superstitious belief can, on occasion, be truly harmful. ‘If crystals or homeopathic medicines are chosen over more scientifically valid methods, then there are obvious risks. Some superstitious acts, such as visiting professional psychics, are also expensive.’
On a broader level, Vyse views the study of superstition as another example of how we all are susceptible to irrational behaviour. ‘Intelligent people from all over the world believe in the oddest things. But in showing how normal and easy it is to acquire these behaviours, it may help people understand why they are superstitious and nudge them to begin to question their beliefs. We would all be much better off if more people were to think rationally in their everyday decisions. It is my belief that scientific study of superstitious behaviour can move us a bit further in that direction.’
Others have also considered the widespread and resistant nature of superstitious beliefs. In a 2015 paper on ‘superstitious acquiescence’, psychologist Jane Risen considers ‘dual-process’ models such as that of Kahneman and Frederick. Such models posit two systems: the first comes up with quick, intuitive and magical answers to questions of judgement we might encounter. The other system is not particularly attentive, is rather lazy and may ignore, override or correct the intuition posited by the first process. In some cases System 2 does not engage: in these cases the magical, intuitive answer given by System 1 is endorsed. For example, a person may realise that they won some money on a scratchcard while chewing gum: System 1 may then suggest the person always chew gum when playing a scratch card to ensure future winnings. If System 2 engages and points out this is not logical, a person won’t try this method. If it fails to engage, a person may make a superstitious habit of gum chewing while gambling.
However, Risen points out that sometimes, even when System 2 does engage and we realise our magical intuitions are basically nonsense, we still may carry on with our gum chewing. She calls this superstitious acquiescence. ‘Superstitions and other powerful intuitions are so compelling that people cannot seem to shake them, despite knowing that they are incorrect…. People successfully detect an error of rationality, but choose not to correct it. System 2 acquiesces to a powerful intuition. Thus in addition to being lazy and inattentive, System 2 is sometimes a bit of a pushover.’
Dr Stuart Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, has delved into the psychology of ‘weird beliefs’ since being inspired to join the field by one man and his cat. ‘There are many reasons I was interested in this area, but the one that sticks out most is the discussion I once had with a man who told me, in all seriousness, that every night before he went to sleep he had a long chat about his day with the spirit of his dead cat. As a psychologist, once you’ve had that conversation it’s hard not to become interested in what might be going on.’
Wilson suggests that the stranger things we humans believe are wholly understandable when we look at the ways we naturally process information. He explains that human perceptual systems are extremely efficient at detecting patterns and finding links: ‘Knowing that X is linked to Y is the first step to knowing that X causes Y, which is the first step to manipulating X so that Y happens. We are able to make links between disparate concepts and think about the causal consequences of hypothetical scenarios. This is part of what makes human thinking more creative than what we see in other species.’
Our inclination to automatically detect patterns can result in mistakes; similarly, the ways we associate events that may be completely random can also be fooled. Wilson says: ‘Just as a visual illusion makes you see something that isn’t real, I would argue that one way to look at superstition is to think of it as an example of a cognitive illusion that makes us see causal relationships that aren’t real. Because we are so good at making diffuse associations between things, then it’s probably easier to fool these systems than it is to fool the perceptual systems. The difference is that, with perceptual illusions, it’s usually quite easy to see how you’ve been fooled: it’s not so easy with cognitive illusions, which might be one reason why they are so hard to change.’
But why would any of this interest psychologists… what does it really tell us? ‘Superstition is part of every human culture. To understand the allure of superstition is to understand something fundamental about us as humans. If the goal of psychology and related disciplines is to understand human thought and behaviour, then understanding superstition is going to have to be part of the story,’ Wilson says.
Benefits of superstition?
We have heard that superstitions are often found in situations that inspire feelings of a loss of control, or vulnerability. For example, in his book Kidding Ourselves (2014, Crown) Joseph Hallinan points to the fisherman on the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific. When fishing close to shore they showed no superstitions, but when due out in the open sea they engaged in elaborate rituals before their departure to ensure they made it home.
Hallinan also recounts an interesting example from 2006, during the war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and the Israeli military. Many people in the area fled, but left behind were a group of US researchers who were working with Orthodox Jewish women in the northern Israeli town of Safed. The group of women were powerless and could have been killed at any moment, but they found ways of coping. They ritually recited the Book of Psalms, a collection of 150 poems considered to provide strength and protection. The researchers gave the women a mood disorder scale and found that their practices had measurably lowered levels of anxiety – helping them to deal with their terrifying situation.
Yet the actual research in this area is as messy as we may have come to expect. A 2010 study by Lysann Damisch and her colleagues received much media attention when they appeared to show a measurable benefit to superstition. They conducted a series of experiments and found people who had a superstition activated before a task (being given a ‘lucky golf ball’ in a putting game or being told ‘we have our fingers crossed for you’ before a manual dexterity task) performed better. They also appeared to show that performance benefits provided by superstitions are produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy. But a 2014 attempt to replicate one of the four experiments, by Calin-Jageman and Caldwell, was unsuccessful. When told the golf ball they had was ‘lucky’, participants in this experiment did not perform any better on a 10-shot golf task.
Chris French (Goldsmiths, University of London) agrees that a sportsperson’s rituals before a game may increase focus, and says the person may well feel anxious if they couldn’t carry out this ritual. ‘There is also evidence to suggest that superstitious thinking might provide a psychological defence against learned helplessness. In an apparently hopeless situation, a superstitious person is more likely to keep trying to achieve success than a non-superstitious person. If the situation changes in such a way that efforts to succeed suddenly become effective, the superstitious person is more likely to take advantage of this change.’
So superstitions seem to offer a benefit to people who use them, and presumably more so in those who truly believe in them. But what about the sceptical superstitious among us? Why am I compelled to salute every lone magpie I see, despite being pretty certain nothing dreadful would happen if I didn’t? French suggested one reason – superstitions are so widely known that we may use them to communicate our desires, for example by crossing our fingers as a gesture to others to show we want a good outcome.
He added: ‘We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, influenced by irrational tendencies that probably have their roots in our evolutionary history – such as the idea that good or evil influences can somehow be transmitted by mere physical contact. Many smart, even sceptical, people might find it uncomfortable to wear the jacket of a mass murderer even though they know on an intellectual level that this is irrational. Similarly, many of us would be thrilled to own something that once belonged to one of our heroes.’
Across his varied career French has come across some real ‘characters’, but has he specifically seen any really odd superstitions at work? ‘It is the more personal, idiosyncratic superstitions that often strike us as odd, such as the elaborate and bizarre rituals that many sportspeople engage in. To give but one example, Goran Ivanisevic, the Wimbledon champion in 2001, used to follow a very bizarre daily routine during the competition that involved watching an episode of Teletubbies in the morning, eating soup, lamb cutlets and chips, refusing to shave or have a haircut, and not allowing female family members to watch him play.’
Superstition ain’t the way?
Stevie Wonder famously sang ‘When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then we suffer… Superstition ain’t the way’. But psychologists suggest that the everyday superstitions we know and love – knocking on wood, crossing our fingers and carrying lucky charms – may actually may help us out, particularly if we’re feeling a loss of control. But Chris French warns against anything which puts our sense of control outside ourselves in difficult situations: ‘Belief in possession and exorcism can result in tragic cases of child abuse and even death. People can become totally psychologically dependent upon advice from expensive psychic hotlines and middle-class fads like feng shui and crystal power will have a very negative impact on your bank balance.’
Despite such warnings, perhaps we can conclude by returning to poet John Clare. If superstitions are indeed ‘engrafted on the human mind’, they are likely to be a fruitful area for psychological research for many years to come.
- Ella Rhodes is The Psychologist's journalist.
Box text: Think you need a lucky mascot?
Cross your fingers, touch wood, and don’t forget the rabbit’s foot. What leads people to put faith in such habits? Research from Boston and Tulane Universities suggests our goals have a big influence. Luck is the last thing on our minds when we’re concerned with learning. But when we’re focused on external goals, such as scoring a high exam grade, superstitious thinking intrudes.
Being superstitious is about invoking some force beyond ourselves to make the other horse stumble, help our guesses fall on the correct answers, or our balls tumble out of the lottery machine. As these examples indicate, a common theme is that there is something about the goal also being beyond ourselves – external – and this is what researchers Eric Hamerman and Carey Morewedge set out to investigate.
In one experiment, participants indicated they would prefer to complete a (hypothetical) class assignment using a lucky pen, when their aim was to chase a grade. In contrast, the pen held no attraction when they were told their only focus was to master the subject matter, because flukey guesses won’t actually help you learn any better. The fruits of understanding are internal and impervious to Lady Luck’s ways.
The same pattern of superstition was found in a follow-up experiment. When the purpose of the task was to perform as well as possible, participants often chose a ‘lucky’ avatar to represent themselves, one that they’d used earlier when they were told they had performed very well. This was the case even when the ‘unlucky’ alternative would otherwise seem more fitting, such as a scientist avatar for a science quiz. In contrast, those participants tasked to simply see what they could learn strongly favoured the scientist avatar.
In a further experiment, Hamerman and Morewedge uncovered another important factor: uncertainty. When a task was introduced as being straightforward and with few surprises, participants weren’t drawn to the previously successful avatar. Only performance-minded participants who were also warned ‘some people intuitively see the right answers, while others do not’ were keen to get lucky.
It’s interesting to know when we might fall into superstitious habits, but the authors also point out a parallel insight. Highly successful practitioners in many fields are those people who ‘reframe their objectives as learning goals to focus on the process rather than the results’. What this means is that when we slip into superstitious tendencies, this may be a clue to us that we are looking at an activity in the wrong way, preoccupied with immediate outcomes and not treating the task as an opportunity to develop ourselves and deepen our understanding.
Hamerman, E.J. & Morewedge, C.K. (2015). Reliance on luck: Identifying which achievement goals elicit superstitious behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(3), 323–335.
- Written by Alex Fradera for the Society’s Research Digest (see www.bps.org.uk/digest)
Damisch, L., Stoberock, B. & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21(7), 1014–1020.
Fluke, S.M., Webster, R.J. & Saucier, D.A. (2012). Methodological and theoretical improvements in the study of superstitious beliefs and behaviour. British Journal of Psychology, 105, 102–126.
Lindeman, M. & Aarnio, K. (2007) Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 731–744.
Risen, J.L. (2015). Believing what we do not believe: Acquiescence to superstitious beliefs and other powerful intuitions. Psychological Review [Advance online publication].
Tobacyk, J. & Shrader, D. (1991). Superstition and self-efficacy, Psychological Reports, 68, 1387–1388.
Vyse. S. (2014). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition (Updated edn). New York: Oxford University Press.