Taming Superstitions – The Science of a Puzzled Brain

Taming Superstitions – The Science of a Puzzled Brain

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What is superstition?

Although there is no single definition of superstition, it generally means a belief in supernatural forces – such as fate – the desire to influence unpredictable factors and a need to resolve uncertainty. In this way then, individual beliefs and experiences drive superstitions, which explains why they are generally irrational and often defy current scientific wisdom.

No matter how sophisticated our society becomes, superstitions persist in having an impact on success or failure. There seems to be part of the human mind that thrives on creating little anchors of “magic” that lift us up or bring us down independent of rationality. Though the clearly logical part of our thinking can easily dismiss the practice or belief in superstitious activity as silly quirks, our less rational creative mind goes to work incorporating whatever we feed it to gain or lose an edge in using faculties consistently engaged in solving problems.

Uncontrolled belief in superstitions can have a negative impact on how people conduct their lives. When applied in extremes, such thoughts can become destructive to the point of debilitation. Superstition can be passed down through generations or created on a purely individual level. Some of the older forms of superstition like walking under a ladder, stepping on cracks in pavement, spilling salt, breaking mirrors or other “bad omens” are examples of misguided beliefs that have long been a part of lore. There are also a host of traditional counter measures and lucky charms reported to counteract bad luck and turn it into good.

The concept of superstition encompasses a wide range of beliefs and behaviors, most can be united by a single underlying property—the incorrect establishment of cause and effect: ‘a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation’

Psychologists who have investigated what role superstitions play, have found that they derive from the assumption that a connection exists between co-occurring, non-related events. For instance, the notion that charms promote good luck, or protect you from bad luck.

Usually, when people recognize that a belief they hold is mistaken they try to correct it. But when it comes to superstitious beliefs, many people feel that they are “of two minds.” Even those who claim not to be superstitious, for example, may be reluctant to utter the phrase “no-hitter” during the 8th inning of a baseball game or name their baby before he or she is born. How can people believe things that they know aren’t true?

Traditionally, research on superstition has focused on people’s cognitive shortcomings. But superstitions are not limited to individuals with cognitive deficits; there are many smart, educated, emotionally stable adults who have superstitions too. So why are superstitious beliefs pervasive and what can that tell us about the way that people think more broadly?

Superstitious beliefs are maintained even when people know they are not true, the existing model must be refined. People who hold superstitious beliefs and engage in actions that reflect those beliefs often realize — in the moment — that their thoughts and behaviors are irrational.

Fast and slow, or “dual process models” of cognition, propose that one set of mental processes operates quickly and automatically to provide an initial intuitive judgment, while the other operates slowly and deliberately and is responsible for overriding intuitive judgments when it detects an error. A dual process account can help explain why superstitious thinking is widespread.

For many people, engaging with superstitious behaviors provides a sense of control and reduces anxiety – which is why levels of superstition increase at times of stress and angst. This is particularly the case during times of economic crisis and social uncertainty – notably wars and conflicts. Indeed, Researchers have observed how in Germany between 1918 and 1940 measures of economic threat correlated directly with measures of superstition.

Superstition also explains why many buildings do not have a 13th floor – preferring to label it 14, 14A 12B or M (the 13th letter of the alphabet) on elevator button panels because of concerns about superstitious tenants. Indeed, 13% of people in one survey indicated that staying on the 13th floor of a hotel would bother them – and 9% said they would ask for a different room.

On top of this, some airlines such as Air France and Lufthansa, do not have a 13th row. Lufthansa also has no 17th row – because in some countries – such as Italy and Brazil – the typical unlucky number is 17 and not 13.

Generally, superstitions fall into two categories: those that are believed to court good luck (such as having a lucky charm or pre-game ritual) and those that might help you avoid bad luck (like steering clear of a black cat on the street). “People like to have the idea that they can make sense of the world and predict what will happen to them,” notes social psychologist Carey Morewedge, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University. “Superstitions serve as external explanations for seemingly causal events” or as a possible way to reduce the odds that something bad will happen.

Facts:

Are you spooked by Friday the 13th, black cats crossing your path or having to walk under a ladder? Do you often knock on wood after mentioning your good fortune or throw salt over your left shoulder after spilling it to ward off bad luck? If so, you’re among the legions of people who are superstitious: A 2014 Harris Interactive/Statista survey of 2,236 adults across the U.S. found that 33 percent of people believe finding and picking up a penny is good luck, and 21% believe knocking on wood prevents bad luck. A previous Gallup news poll found that 25% of people in the U.S. say they are “very” or “somewhat” superstitious in general.

Where do these beliefs come from? “Superstitions come from traditions and your upbringing – people teach you superstitions; you’re not born believing in Friday the 13th or that if you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,” says Stuart Vyse, a psychologist in Stonington, Connecticut.
“They also come from the uncertainty of life – if you have something you desire that you cannot make sure will happen,” you might engage in superstitious behavior. That’s because superstitions often provide the illusion of control.

Believe it or not, being superstitious can affect your behavior and state of mind, influencing everything from your preparation for and performance on a particular challenge to your responsiveness to placebos.

“When people feel the world is out of their control, they look for external sources of control – superstitions are really a reaction to feeling out of control,” says study co-author Eric Hamerman, an assistant professor of marketing at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. “People like to put a sense of control around chaos or uncertainty.”

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