When ancient people looked into the night sky and saw a tail of light flying through the stars, they knew that this was a harbinger of doom: a sign that death, plague, war or other catastrophes were coming. Thousands of years later, we know that what they were really witnessing was not a cosmic sign of doom: It was a comet—a big chunk of ice flying near the sun.
You would think that with the explosion of scientific discovery we have seen over the past centuries that superstitions like “knocking on wood” and “Friday the 13th” would have died a quiet death. But the research shows that more than half of us still hold on to some superstitious tendencies. Why?
Why are people superstitious?
The reason that humans have survived as a species is because we have inherited an incredible ability to quickly see connections between potential causes and events. Early humans learnt that if they ate certain foods (say, red berries), then they got sick or died. So they learnt pretty quickly to avoid the Red Berries of Doom. The trouble is that our innate ability for identifying potential causes and events can also make us conjure up connections between events that are completely unrelated.
While most people understand that superstitions are irrational, they serve a purpose by providing a sense of control over our environment. People are much more likely to engage in superstitious behaviour when they are in uncertain and stressful situations. If you’re going through a work restructure, coming up to exam period, or running the gauntlet of job interviews, you’re much more likely to believe in “fate” than at any other time. By believing that other forces are guiding your path, you can outsource some of your stress to your superstition. Failed the test? Not your fault—it was that black cat! Aced it? Must have been your lucky sneakers!
The dark side of superstition
Survey research has found that even people who don’t consider themselves superstitious still tend to believe that a person can be “jinxed” by saying a negative event will never happen to them. The irony here is that by believing something bad is coming our way, we may be bringing our own doom down on ourselves.
Someone who believes in the power of Friday the 13th will be on the lookout for something to go wrong, and this outlook means that they interpret mundane events, like spilling some coffee, as disastrous. Thoughts of danger may also distract them, making it more likely that that they drive erratically or walk into pedestrians—making their Friday the 13th fears a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are superstitious also don’t consider that bad things happen to them without bad omens: If that same person had a bad day on Thursday the 12th, it’s doubtful that they would attribute their bad luck to the day of the week.
Most of us aren’t walking around in a state of terror on Friday the 13th, but superstitions can impact people’s daily lives. A study of investment bankers found that those who believed sneaky psychologists’ false claims that the letters X, Y and Z were associated with better outcomes in a simulated stock market earned significantly less than their sceptical colleagues. The researchers also found that these investment bankers had lower salaries in the real world – suggesting that the investment bankers’ superstitious behaviour was bringing their job performance down.
The upside of superstitions
Being superstitious isn’t always a bad thing. Psychologists have found that people who believe in good luck charms actually do better when they are allowed to bring them along to tests. Holding on to your charm can act as a placebo, making you feel more confident, helping you to persist at tasks for longer, and to perform better than people without good luck charms.
Even if you’re not the lucky charm type, just being told that you have something lucky to help you with your task can give you a performance boost. Studies have found that people do better at golf when told that they’re using a “lucky” ball. Somewhat surprisingly, people also do better when told that the researcher is “crossing their fingers.”
And little rituals can help to extinguish your fears about bad things happening to you. In a study looking at the effect of knocking on wood, students who were allowed to knock on wood after saying that they would definitely not get into a car accident were less anxious than students who didn’t. Interestingly, students who tapped towards themselves were actually more anxious after believing they had jinxed themselves—suggesting that the physical act of pushing something away from you helps you to “let go” of your fear.
Making superstitions work for you
Since superstitions based on fear and avoidance make it more likely that the winds of ill fate will come to you, it’s in your best interests to leave these by the wayside. Look at the evidence for and against your belief: Is it logical? Do bad thing also happen when your bad omen isn’t around? Could it be your fear creating the situation? By letting go of your fearful superstitions, you can take ownership for what went wrong, and figure out how to prevent it happening again.
On the other hand, feel free to hang on to superstitions that make you feel more relaxed and hopeful about the future. Starting a ritual before big events like sports games or job interviews can help you to get “in the zone” and make you more optimistic about your chances of success. Just remember to give yourself the credit when things go right—your good luck charm helped put you in a positive frame of mind, but you’re the one who made the good things happen!
Good luck everyone—I’ve got my fingers crossed for you all!
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