We all know that superstitious behaviour is irrational. Stuart Vyse, author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition,” points out, “When we are looking for ways to enhance our luck, we often see connections that are not there.”
Due to confirmation bias, people tend to look for days when their lucky shirt gave them great fortune and overlook the times it didn’t work or when good things happened without the shirt. They are also more likely to interpret ambiguous evidence, such as their favourite sports team playing well but losing the game, as support for their theory.
It’s also no surprise that superstitious behaviour can be problematic. It can create fear where there was none before. For example, people might pay more for a product because the price has lucky numbers, or they may miss out on opportunities because they won’t fly on Friday the 13th or visit the 13th floor of a building.
Superstition can also replace active, productive behaviours, such as bringing a lucky charm to an exam instead of studying. Even worse, it can manifest as rituals that people become dependent on because they are so easy to rely on.
Yet despite the negatives, there are some real benefits to being superstitious. It can create actual results — not through magic, but through psychology.
“I don’t believe that superstitious rituals can directly affect the likelihood of a particular outcome, but they can change the way people think and behave, which can affect outcomes,” says Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her ongoing research suggests that engaging in a ritual in a high-anxiety situation can make people feel less anxious and therefore perform better than people who do not engage in such a ritual.
Additionally, “believing you are lucky can improve performance at a skilled task,” Vyse notes. He mentions a laboratory study where golfers who’d been told that the ball they were using was lucky putted significantly better than golfers who hadn’t.
Superstitions also help people manage difficult emotions, especially under conditions of uncertainty. “They make people feel like they can understand, predict, and control their environment,” says Risen. For example, if people can attribute the reason they had a snow day to a snow dance they performed the night before, then they feel more in control of unpredictable circumstances.
“It would be great for us if we had a fast and easy way to increase our perceptions of prediction and control in the world, while reducing our experiences of stress and anxiety,” says Donald Saucier, professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. “This is what we think superstitions do. We can now believe that we can influence events, whether or not we actually can, by doing things to increase our good luck, decrease our bad luck, and change our overall luck.”
Being superstitious can provide fast and meaningful psychological benefits. It decreases feelings of helplessness, while increasing confidence and initiative. “We can do many things to try to make things work out well, but where there is a random factor, superstition may help fill the gap and give us a sense of control — even if it is just an illusion of control,” says Vyse.
Specifically, avoidant actions — superstitious gestures that involve pushing away from the body, such as throwing salt, spitting, or knocking on wood — are the most effective for helping people feel protected, especially in situations where they are trying to undo bad luck.
Researchers have found that exerting force away from the self allows people to simulate the experience of having avoided bad fortune. Avoidant actions make people feel like they have gotten rid of the bad mojo, and it can be stress-relieving for them to connect their abstract fears to physical movements.
The next time you are in an uncertain situation, you might just find your superstitions coming in handy.
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