The Psychology of Superstition (cont.)

"There can be a real psychological effect of superstitious thoughts," says Vyse. If you've done well before when you had a particular shirt on, for example, it might prove wise to wear the shirt again, if it helps to relieve anxiety and promotes positive thoughts. But this way of thinking can also hinder your performance, if say, you lose your lucky object.

It's not news that expectations can be extremely powerful and suggestive. Studies regularly point to placebo effects (both positive and negative), which are entirely caused by the power of expectations or preconceptions. Yet superstitions can also play a negative role in our lives, especially when combined with a bad habit such as gambling. If you're a compulsive gambler who believes that you can get lucky, then that belief may contribute to your problem.

Phobic (fearful) superstitions can also interfere with our lives, and cause a lot of anxiety, says Vyse. For example, people who are afraid of Friday the 13th might change travel arrangements or skip an appointment because of unnecessary anxiety. These types of superstitions offer no benefit at all.

And the Award for Most Superstitious Goes to ...

Being superstitious is something we often learn as children, and according to the Gallup poll, older folks are less likely to believe in superstitions.

Generally speaking, women are more superstitious than men, Vyse says. When was the last time you saw an astrology column in a men's magazine? Women may also experience more anxiety, or at least, more women than men seek help for anxiety problems. Although personality variables are not a strong factor in developing superstition, there is some evidence that if you are more anxious than the average person you're slightly more likely to be superstitious.

Vyse says our locus of control can also be a factor contributing to whether or not we are superstitious. If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that you are in charge of everything; you are the master of your fate and you can make things happen. If you have an external locus of control, "you're sort of buffeted by life, and things happen to you instead of the other way around," Vyse tells WebMD. People with external locus of control are more likely to be superstitious, possibly as a way of getting more power over their lives. "Part of the reason why women are more superstitious than men is that women feel, even in today's modern society, that they have less control over their fate than men do."

Intelligence seems to have little to do with whether or not we subscribe to superstitions. Vyse says that on the Harvard campus -- where one would assume there are a lot of intelligent people -- students frequently rub the foot of the statue of John Harvard for good luck. In a sense, a superstition, like other rituals, can become part of a campus, community or culture, and can help bring people together. "Most of the superstitions people engage in are perfectly fine, and are not pathological," says Vyse. Now that's good news, and it's just in time for Halloween.

Published Oct. 4, 2004.

SOURCES: Stuart Vyse, PhD, professor and chair, department of psychology, Connecticut College; author, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Paul Foxman, PhD, director, Center for Anxiety Disorders, Burlington, Vt. Press Release, The Gallup Organization web site.

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