- Superstition is a way of behaving that is based on fear of the unknown and/or a faith in magic or luck.
- Superstitions that may be considered “good” tend to be about the belief in the unstable resource of luck.
- Superstitions that are considered “bad” tend to be based on fear of the unknown.
- There can be negative psychological implications to superstitious beliefs and behaviors.
Superstition is defined as a way of behaving that is based on fear of the unknown and/or faith in magic or luck. For some, superstition brings meaning to the random nature of luck. But superstition has also been speculated to exist along the same continuum as obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD (Brugger & Viaud-Delmon, 2010).
These researchers stressed the distinction between superstitious belief and superstitious behavior. Here, we are talking about superstitious belief, which is a belief resulting from fear of the unknown, trust in magic, chance, or a false conception of causation. In healthy individuals, superstitious behavior can occur without accompanying beliefs in non-existent causative forces.
There are some nuances within superstitious beliefs as well. Some individuals see superstitious beliefs as helpful while others see them as threatening. There is a proclivity to see superstition as sometimes good or sometimes bad. There may be a need to consider the potential psychological ramifications of maintaining superstitious beliefs.
The Good Side of Superstitions
Superstitions that may be considered “good” tend to be about a belief in the unstable resource of luck. Good luck superstitions include lucky numbers, lucky pennies, lucky horseshoes, finger-crossing, itchy right palms, and many more. These good luck superstitions are believed to help superstitious believers to relieve their anxiety about unknown situations.
“One’s belief in good luck, and belief that it is a personal trait, could play a crucial role in gambling behavior, and can lead gamblers to have an irrational anticipation to win and to over-generalize their subjective sense of control (Kim et.al, 2015).” The value of good luck appears to be related to an increased need for a feeling of control. This may be especially significant in situations where the individual is feeling some loss of control and there is the potential for bad events to occur, like losing money.
The Bad Side of Superstitions
Superstitions that could be considered “bad” tend to be those based on a fear of the unknown. These include such superstitions as knocking on wood, throwing salt over your shoulder, walking under a ladder, a broken mirror, stepping on a crack, itchy left palms, and many others. All these superstitions tend to increase anxiety, induce fear, and establish avoidance patterns for those who believe in them.
Avoiding these “bad” superstitions could potentially transform superstitious beliefs into superstitious behaviors, which moves them closer on the continuum to OCD. Superstitions do seem to have the power to influence our thinking and in extreme cases our behavior.
Superstition fits into the dual process theory of psychology, popularized by psychologist Daniel Kahneman as "thinking fast and slow." Superstitions are believed to arise from the fast, intuitive thought process, rather than the more deliberate critical thinking process. Intuitive thought tends to, at times, be more impulsive and automatic, which could lead to misinterpretations and inaccurate reactions.
The Ugly Side of Superstitions
Are there negative psychological implications to superstitious beliefs, and possibly superstitious behaviors? The so-called “good” superstitions that rely on luck may help relieve some anxiety but may have other drawbacks.
Luck negates skill. Are we accepting our successes as luck when they are really about our skills? Are we depending, foolishly, on luck to get us through a dangerous situation? Luck is an unstable resource, which cannot be relied upon with any certainty.
The “bad” superstitious beliefs and behaviors have several negatives that may contribute to psychological issues. Anxiety, fear, and avoidance patterns are self-limiting factors to healthy functionality.
Critical thinking tends to be displaced with more intuitive thought in both “good” and “bad” superstitious beliefs and behaviors. The cost of these beliefs may be marginal most of the time; however, the contagion of superstitions can become embedded, as the cultural history of such beliefs has proven over time.
Brugger, P. & Viaud-Delmon, I. (2010). Superstitiousness in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscince, 2010 June; 12(2): 250-254.
Kim, S., Kwon, Y., & Hyun, M. (2015). The effects of belief in good luck and counterfactual thinking on gambling behavior. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2015 Dec 21; 4(4): 236-243.