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Why Are We Superstitious?

(Flickr Photo by John Haslam)

Walking under ladders, spilled salt, black cats, broken mirrors, and Friday the Thirteenth are all common superstitions we encounter as we go through our daily lives. Why do we give such weight to these particular events? Why do we believe that one event will have an effect on other unrelated events later in the day or week?

If we don’t continue a chain letter, then bad luck is sure to befall us in a matter of hours. But if we do… then better buy a lottery ticket, because good luck is almost guaranteed. There’s an old saying, “Fear of loss is always more powerful than expectation of gain.” It’s the reason most people don’t quit a job unless they have another one waiting.

People use superstition to ward off the bad rather than assume something good will happen. The chain letter not delivering riches is preferable to something bad happening for breaking the chain.

How Are Superstitions Created?

When I was in high school and college I developed a ritual before each athletic game. Food, music, dressing for the game all had to be very precise and done is an exact order. It developed over time. If I did certain things and had a good game, then I kept doing those things. If I did things and had a bad game, then I would eliminate those. Over time a ritual was born. The question is, did I play well because of the ritual, or did the ritual relieve the stress, or fear of failure, and allow me to be better? I guess there’s no way to know for sure.

In the 1940’s, a behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner was experimenting with some pigeons. During his experiments he noticed that various birds were developing, what he felt, were superstitious actions. His pigeons were fed at the same time each day by a machine. But Skinner noticed that his pigeons had begun to develop behaviors trying to influence the machine to produce the food when the pigeon wanted it. Different pigeons developed different behaviors trying to force the machine to pay off before its time.

Some Final Thoughts

For most of us, superstitions are just a fun way to feel we have some control over our lives. But for some, it’s a dangerous affliction. Psychiatric intervention is sometimes needed for people to live normal lives.

So the next time you are walking toward that ladder, take a look around to make sure it’s safe, then live dangerously, take a walk under it and see what happens. But, please don’t break any mirrors. That’s a seven-year sentence, and no one wants that.

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