Feature Archive

The Psychology of Superstition

Is 'magical' thinking hurting or helping you?

By Sarah Albert
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

If you're like most people, you occasionally participate in superstitious thinking or behavior often without even realizing you're doing it. Just think: When was the last time you knocked on wood, walked within the lines, avoided a black cat, or read your daily horoscope? These are all examples of superstitions or what Stuart Vyse, PhD, and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, calls magical thinking.

More than half of Americans admitted to being at least a little superstitious, according to a recent Gallup poll. Additionally, beliefs in witches, ghosts and haunted houses -- all popular Halloween symbols -- have increased over the past decade. But just what is the psychology behind our magical thinking, and is it hurting or helping us? When does superstitious thinking go too far? Was Stevie Wonder right: When you believe in things that you don't understand, do you suffer?

Superstition, Ritual, or Anxiety?

In our quest to understand superstitions, let's start by defining them. After all, not all rituals or beliefs are superstitions. "The dividing line is whether you give some kind of magical significance to the ritual," Vyse tells WebMD.