We humans are a superstitious bunch. We believe that we can influence an outcome of a situation if we perform a specific action, even if the two are not connected in any rational way.
- Bjorn Borg’s beard was about more than just looking cool. The Swedish tennis legend would always grow his beard before the Wimbledon fortnight. As a secondary superstition, he also wore the same Fila shirt throughout the competition
- Serena Williams always bounces the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second. Also, she always crosses the net from the opposite side of the umpire chair after the first game
- Tiger Woods always wears red when playing on Sundays
- Neymar always wears shoes personalised with the name of his son for good luck
- Michael Jordan wore his UNC (University of North Carolina) college shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform, every game. In fact, he was the trendsetter for the change from mid-thigh shorts to longer shorts – to cover up his UNC pair that was underneath!
- Jennifer Aniston is afraid of flying, so she has to enter an aircraft with her right foot first. And she must tap the outside of the aircraft before boarding
- Kit Harington (Jon Snow from GoT) scratches his balls every time he sees an ambulance. Someone told him its good luck for the person inside and so he thinks that “its a nice thing” to do
- J. K. Rowling will only type her title page once the entire book she’s writing is finished
- Keith Richards (lead guitarist of The Rolling Stones) must eat a shepherds pie before every concert performance…and he must be the one to break the pie crust
- Axl Rose (of Guns’n’Roses) has a problem playing shows in cities with the letter M
- Pablo Picasso would not throw away his old clothes, hair trimmings, or fingernail clippings for fear it would mean losing part of his ‘essence’
- Although Kayne West proposed to her in 2013, Kim Kardashian waited a year to get married. Fear of the number “13” is so widespread that most hotels ‘skip’ having a 13th floor, moving the numbering directly to 14, and similarly many airlines ‘skip’ row 13 on their aircrafts…
- …unless you’re Taylor Swift whose belief about the number 13 is completely the opposite: “I was born on the 13th. I turned 13 on Friday the 13th. My first album went gold in 13 weeks. My first No.1 song had a 13-second intro,” she explains. “Every time I’ve won an award I’ve been seated in either the 13th seat, the 13th row, the 13th section or row M, which is the 13th letter.” She writes the number 13 on her hand before every performance, and incorporates the number into her life whenever possible.
Before you laugh at these superstitious behaviours, pause a moment – do you have some ritual or amulet that you use for good luck? I don’t consider myself superstitious and yet I cross my fingers and knock on wood (usually my head) fairly frequently. And I did provide 13 examples above!
Superstitions are particularly common in sports. In some of the examples above we saw several athletes who have long-term, deeply-ingrained superstitions. But its also very common in sports fans who, when their favorite team is playing, will:
- wear specific clothes, perhaps a lucky jersey
- sit in a specific place or position
- place the TV remote in a particular position
- eat a particular dish
- not shave that day
- not leave the room if their team is winning (gotta pee? forget it!) or, alternatively, not watch if their team is losing
Die-hard superstitious sports fans even believe that it was their actions on that day that helped their team, unarguably, win the match. The talent of the players and their efforts are important of course, but the win was because of the good luck brought upon the team by the fan’s actions.
We are great at finding patterns. As I’ve written before “We’re always trying to discern patterns in the world and there’s a darn good evolutionary reason for this – survival! Recognizing patterns allow us to expect and predict what will come next. And this enables us to do only the things that we think will have safe outcomes, and avoid those that may result in danger.”
Sometimes our inclination to find patterns has another consequence – we may see one where it does not really exist and when a combination of events are just coincidences. So just like ancient myths, superstition has its origins in the youth of our species, when our ancestors could not understand the forces and whims of the natural world. Compelled to find explanations, as irrational as they might be – voila…superstitions were born!
Superstitions have two flavors: experiences and myths.
Some superstitions can be considered as having grown out of experiences. Its fairly straightforward to see the “cause-and-effect” pattern in these. A few examples:
- Don’t walk under a ladder (or you may get hurt by a falling object)
- Don’t break a mirror (as you might cut yourself on the broken shards)
- Don’t open an umbrella indoors (as you might knock over and break something)
But there’s another category where the patterns are not obvious, and the roots of these superstitions are impossible to discern. These are based on myths, on the assumption that a some invisible connection exists between co-occurring, non-related events like:
- If you spill salt, throw some over your left shoulder to ward off bad luck
- Blowing on dice in gambling brings good luck
- A black cat crossing your path is bad luck
As I dug into this subject of superstitious behaviors, a surprising aspect I discovered was that superstitions and religion are often not connected. Unthinkingly, I had always believed that it was religious people who were superstitious.
Yes, some superstitions do have religious roots. A famous one is the number ‘666’ derived from the Bible, which the Book of Revelations calls the “the number of the beast”, the mark of Satan, and is hence considered a bad omen. Similarly, saying “bless you” to someone who has just sneezed is to prevent the devil from stealing their soul.
But many superstitions have no religious foundations. Some examples are above (throwing salt, blowing on dice). But also superstitions like its bad luck to have a sparrow flying into your home or to forget to crack the bottom of the egg-shell after having eaten a boiled egg. Sports fans who follow their own rituals to ‘ensure’ their team wins are not invoking gods or saints.
Just as atheists can believe in aliens or in paranormal activities (believing that science just hasn’t yet found ‘scientific‘ explanations for these), we also have superstitious atheists. So, surprisingly (for me at least), there isn’t always a connection between religion and superstitions.
What psychological purpose do superstitions serve? Psychologists have long been fascinated with this subject and a lot of studies and research have resulted in findings around anxiety, performance and the illusion of control.
Superstitions can have a soothing effect, helping to relieve anxiety about the unknown. Following a superstition is a low-cost, low-effort and low-risk of warding of unseen dangers. It has been observed that the frequency and intensity of superstitions increase substantially in conditions of low confidence, uncertainties and insecurity. “We live in a world where one cannot always control the outcome,” says Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. “Superstitions tend to emerge in those contexts. You do everything you possibly can to ensure that things will work out.”
But beware – such beliefs can also have the exact opposite effect. In case you forget to perform your superstitious ritual, your anxiety levels will increase!
Superstitions has been proven to improve performance. In one study published in Psychological Science (2010), researchers gave golf balls to all of their participants and told half that their golf ball was lucky. The subjects with the “lucky” golf balls made 35 percent more successful putts!
Students appearing for exams and candidates for interviews have been known to perform better if they have followed some superstition, particularly if they’re using a lucky charm or amulet.
In the above cases, superstitions function as placebos. Mysterious as it is, the placebo effect is a well-documented medical fact and an effective medical treatment. The placebo effect causes the brain to release dopamine, triggering the reward center of the brain and changing moods. For instance, people’s insistence that Vitamin C helps common colds despite no scientific evidence existing for it. In the case of superstitions, a similar effect seems to occur when an object is considered to be imbued with healing properties or providing good luck.
From a psychological standpoint, superstitious beliefs provide an illusion of control – the feeling that we have some direct or indirect control over the outcome of processes over which we actually have absolutely no control. Gambling is a common everyday example – gamblers tend to develop all sorts of behaviors they believe will give them a better chance of winning at games which are random. Psychologists have categorized these into primary and secondary. Primary control is direct control – if I throw the dice with my left hand I will get a better result. Secondary control is an attempt to harness or align with an outside force, such as ‘lady luck’.
Studies have also shown that having a feeling of lack of control increases pattern recognition itself. So when we feel lack of control, we unconsciously search harder for patterns that might help us regain some control. Since we already have hyperactive pattern recognition, this drives the perception of illusory patterns, leading to a sense of illusory control.
As I’ve peeled the onion on this topic, I’ve come to a conclusion that belief in superstitions is ultimately about hope. Hope that by doing a particular action, however irrational, we will attract good fortunes for ourselves and for the people who matter to us, or at least prevent bad things from happening. Our belief in them reflects an aspect of our daily struggles as we go through life, a way in which we attempt to deal with its inherent uncertainties.
As the Architect states in The Matrix Reloaded (2003): “Hope, it is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength and your greatest weakness.” Superstitions are pretty much the same. A little belief can relieve anxiety and improve performance however an over-dependence on them can easily become the debilitating and the subject of ridicule.
By now I have my share of (mild) superstitions, but at least paraskevidekatriaphobia* is not on my list…..or I wouldn’t be publishing this article today.
– Geet Lulla, Friday the 13th of December, 2019
* An irrational fear of Friday the 13th.