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Magical Thinking

3 Reasons Why Superstitions Work

Superstitions are more than simple rituals; they're a valuable coping method.

Key points

  • There are deep psychological reasons why many people engage in superstitions.
  • Superstitions can give people a sense of control or comfort.
  • They can also serve as personalized coping mechanisms.
Source: Kari Shea/Unsplash
Source: Kari Shea/Unsplash

Superstition is the belief in supernatural causality, where certain actions, objects, or rituals are believed to bring about specific outcomes, whether good or bad. While some may dismiss superstitions as irrational, there are deep psychological reasons why many engage in such beliefs.

The enduring allure of superstitions transcends time and culture, offering insights into our desire for control and order in a chaotic world.

Here are three primary reasons why people engage with superstitions.

1. The Need for Control

Life’s unpredictability and uncontrollable events can make us feel powerless and vulnerable. In these moments, superstitions step in as comforting rituals, offering the illusion of control in the face of life’s uncertainties. Acts like knocking on wood or crossing fingers become symbolic safeguards against bad luck and provide a sense of predictability and comfort in unpredictable moments.

Recent research published in Psychological Science reveals that activating good-luck-related superstitions, be it through familiar sayings or actions (such as saying “break a leg” or crossing one’s fingers) or through the use of lucky charms can significantly enhance performance across various tasks, including golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games. These performance improvements stem from changes in perceived self-efficacy, as activating a superstition bolsters participants’ confidence in their ability to tackle forthcoming tasks, ultimately leading to improved performance.

These ritualistic behaviors offer us the illusion of influencing or manipulating outcomes in our favor, even if just for a brief moment. It’s as if, in those fleeting instances, we can momentarily shape the universe to our will, easing the anxiety and distress that life’s capriciousness so often brings. Superstitions become our reassuring companions in the face of an uncertain world, providing a semblance of control over the uncontrollable.

2. Cultural and Social Influence

Superstitions aren’t just isolated quirks; they reflect our collective human experiences. Our inclination to align with our community’s beliefs makes superstitions feel like integral facets of our identity. They often connect us to our cultural heritage, offering a sense of belonging and security. One study underscores how superstitious behavior can be transmitted through social learning, impacting individuals’ perceptions of personal control.

For instance, consider the widely shared superstition of avoiding black cats, a belief with historical roots that transcends continents and cultures. It illustrates how deeply ingrained superstitions can become in the collective human psyche.

Whether it’s a shared belief in avoiding walking under ladders or practicing specific rituals during religious ceremonies, these collective superstitions foster a sense of shared meaning and tradition. Yet another study highlights the connection between a sense of divine involvement and an increased likelihood of individuals experiencing a sense of meaning in life, further emphasizing the link between superstitions and our shared human experiences.

3. Coping Mechanisms

Superstitions, due to their comforting nature, can also serve as personalized coping mechanisms for people or event-specific problems. While most of us do not face extreme uncertainty or high-pressure situations on a daily basis, certain people—like doctors or military personnel—can sometimes rely on superstition-like rituals to neutralize the life-and-death element of their occupations. This tendency can extend to people who are consistently expected to deliver peak performance.

Athletes, for instance, frequently develop personal superstitions to enhance their performance and manage anxiety. For example, a baseball player may have a pre-at-bat ritual of tapping their bat on the ground three times. This ritual acts as a comforting response to the pressure of competition, allowing the athlete to regain control and alleviate anxiety.

A study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, which examined superstitious behaviors among professional baseball players in the United States and Japan, noted that American players with higher superstition levels believed their rituals positively impacted their individual performance, while Japanese players leaned toward the idea that their superstitions contributed to the team’s overall performance.

While the effectiveness of a superstition can be debated ad absurdum, the benefits of calming one's nerves, grounding oneself in the present (especially in a high-stress environment), and the power of placebo has been proven to elevate performance reliably—possibly explaining the persisting popularity of superstitions over generations.


Superstitions act as psychological tools, temporarily granting a sense of control in uncertain times. They serve as emotional life preservers, reducing anxiety and vulnerability. This deeply ingrained quest for control underscores their enduring appeal as tools to navigate life’s uncertainties. Superstitions, then, become valuable tools for managing life’s emotional ups and downs.

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