what is superstition in psychology
What is superstition? Learn about why people engage in superstitious behavior and when it may be a cause for concern

Superstitions are beliefs or attitudes that make connections between events that are unrelated. They often contradict logic or rational science, and in many cases superstitious behaviors or rituals have very little to do with the outcomes that are being sought.

Superstitious beliefs are common, and many psychologists consider them to be expressions of inner tensions and anxieties. Some even consider them to indicate mental disorders, although there is no reliable clinical correlation between superstitious beliefs and mental illness.

Why do people engage in superstitious behavior?

Research studies investigating why people believe in superstitions reveal that for many people, superstitions can reduce anxiety and promote a positive mental attitude. When we are unsure of an outcome, we may find ways to control it even if it’s only in our minds. For example, some people will wear their lucky watch to a job interview, in the hopes that it will help them land the position. 

Studies conducted on the effects of superstition on our psychology have reported that:

  • Activating good-luck-related superstitions by using a lucky charm, saying (“break a leg”), or action (crossing fingers) improved subsequent performance in memory, games, or motor dexterity.
  • Researchers found that the mechanism behind this improved performance was an increase in perceived self-efficacy, which is our personal belief in our own capabilities to see a task through to completion or succeed in a particular situation.
  • By activating a superstition, participants in the study boosted their confidence in mastering subsequent tasks, which in turn improved their performance.

However, although superstitions may help relieve anxiety, they can also lead people to make irrational decisions based on luck instead of sound judgment.

What are common superstitions?

Superstitions are often passed down through generations, with many of the origins lost to history. Some are widespread, while others are specific to certain cultures or occupations.

  • Lucky charms: Common examples include rabbit paws, four-leaf clovers, and horseshoes.
  • Numbers: The number 13 is considered unlucky in Western culture. Some buildings even go directly from the 12th floor to 14th floor.
  • Hypotheticals: Some superstitions are of the “if you do ‘x,’ then bad luck will follow” type. Examples include walking under a ladder, opening an umbrella indoors, spilling salt, putting new shoes on the table, etc. In some cases, it is possible to “undo” the action or bad luck, i.e. by crossing your fingers while walking under a ladder and throwing salt over your left shoulder after spilling it.
  • Animals: Some people believe that a black cat crossing your path is a sign of bad luck, and others believe that a bird flying into your house is a sign of impending death.

When are superstitions harmful?

Superstitious behavior and rituals are generally harmless, and in many cases can be viewed as a way of controlling anxiety over the unknown.

However, when the need to engage in a ritual becomes a compulsion that interferes with your ability to function on a daily basis, it can be harmful and lead to symptoms such as:

  • Excessive worry
  • Tension
  • Obsessive thoughts

In such cases, you may be experiencing symptoms of a more serious problem, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which requires proper diagnosis and professional treatment.

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Medically Reviewed on 8/4/2021
References
Superstitious-behavior:https://psychology.uiowa.edu/comparative-cognition-laboratory/glossary/superstitious-behavior

The Psychology of Superstition: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/psychology-of-superstition

Superstition: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/tag/superstition