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.

For example, if an athlete develops a ritual before a game, something Vyse says many coaches encourage, it may help to calm and focus him or her like repeating a mantra. "That's not superstitious," says Vyse. On the other hand, he says if you think tapping the ball a certain number of times makes you win the game, you've entered superstitious territory.

You might be wondering if certain superstitious behaviors -- such as like counting the number of times you tap a ball -- are really a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD often have compulsions to do rituals over and over again, often interfering with everyday life. A good example is Jack Nicholson's character in the movie As Good As It Gets, who skips cracks in the sidewalk and eats at the same table in the same restaurant every day, with an inability to cope with any change in routine. While some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious behavior (and the two aren't mutually exclusive) Vyse says most of the evidence would indicate there is no connection between the two.

"We don't think of anxiety disorders [such as OCD] as superstitious thinking. We think of it as irrational thinking, and most of our patients understand that," says Paul Foxman, PhD, an anxiety expert from Burlington, Vt. "But I do have patients that tell me that they believe that if they don't worry about something, then the likelihood of it happening will go up, and that is a superstitious thought," he says.

The key is to pay attention to your own thinking, particularly if you experience any symptoms of anxiety -- tension, excessive worry, trouble sleeping, obsessive thoughts and exhaustion, for example. If you experience these symptoms or find that you have repetitive ritualized behavior that's out of control -- superstitious or not -- get professional help from a doctor or therapist.

Driving Forces

Wanting more control or certainty is the driving force behind most superstitions. We tend to look for some kind of a rule, or an explanation for why things happen. "Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty at all, and that is what much of the research suggests," says Vyse.

Job interviews, testing, and other situations where we want things to go well -- regardless of our own preparation or performance -- can spur superstitious thoughts. "We are often in situations in life where something really important is about to happen, we've prepared for it as best we can, but it's still uncertain; it's still unclear," Vyse says. No matter how confident or prepared you are for an event -- whether it's a football game, a wedding, or a presentation -- things can still happen beyond your control. "Superstitions provide people with the sense that they've done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for."

Friend or Foe?

A sense of security and confidence are perhaps the greatest benefits we get emotionally from superstitious thinking or behavior -- like carrying an object or wearing an item of clothing that you deem to be lucky.

Foxman says there is a positive placebo effect -- if you think something will help you, it may do just that. "There is a tremendous amount of power in belief," he says. If the outcome is a matter of pure luck, beliefs don't really have any impact, however, when your performance is a key factor in an outcome, superstitious thinking might give you an extra boost.