We can all remember the nursery rhyme about magpies: “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told”. Seeing a lone magpie brings bad luck, seeing groups predicts the future.
Most of us are superstitious to some extent, whether this involves magpies, rabbit’s foot, horseshoe or other lucky charm, fear of the No.13, black cats or whatever. We know that these preoccupations make no logical sense, but we persist with them nevertheless.
Where do superstitions come from, why do we indulge them and do superstitions confer any benefits on us? These questions are tackled by Ella Rhodes in an article entitled ‘The Everyday Magic of Superstition’ in The Psychologist, November 2016.
Under a broad definition of superstition Rhodes includes belief in luck, omens or signs, occult powers, beginnings, and belief that coincidences have greater significance than random events. Beginnings refers to beliefs that the situation pertaining at the beginning of the journey or project predicts how the journey/project will continue or that the situation at the start of a person’s life predicts the person’s character or prosperity.
It is difficult to know where most superstitions come from. The origin of fear of vampires can be explained, for example, as arising historically in a time when diagnosing death was not an exact science and people had a real fear of being buried alive. Vampires were visualised as undead human corpses that returned from the grave to harm the living. To take the possibility of vampires out of the equation, corpses were sometimes impaled on iron rods.
Superstition is very common across cultures and can be seen even in animals. The behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner demonstrated in 1948 that a pigeon, accidentally fed while displaying a particular behaviour, e.g. swinging its head, continues to attempt to get food by swinging its head even when the food is released at set intervals. Analogously, a friend of mine frequently buys ‘scratch cards’ when grocery shopping. She used to scratch the card in her car before driving home, but never won anything. One day she forgot and didn’t scratch the card until later that evening at home...she won €20. Now she always keeps the card until the evening and scratches it at home.
Certain groups have a reputation for being superstitious, such as sportsmen, sailors and gamblers, but careful studies seeking to identify groups high in superstition have yielded mixed results. Rhodes reports that, on the whole, women seem to be more superstitious than men and better educated people seem to be less superstitious than poorly-educated people.
But many well-educated people can still be superstitious – I would not like to be assigned seat No.13 on an airplane! People with lower self-efficacy tend to be more superstitious, as do people prone to pessimism.
Why are people superstitious? Rhodes cites the opinion of Stuart Vyse, professor of psychology and author of Believing in Magic (Oxford University Press 2014). Vyse suggests that superstitions give comfort in the form of an illusory control in situations where control may be lacking.
He cites evidence that luck-enhancing superstitions can improve skilled performance by providing emotional succour.
Also, once people know they are in a situation where superstition is often invoked to elicit an outcome, they do not want to tempt fate by not employing the superstition.
Vyse distinguishes between positive and negative superstitions. He says that superstitions like carrying a lucky charm are either harmless or carry a small psychological advantage. They will not help you win a game of chance, but they may help you to do a better job interview. Also, a sportsperson’s superstitious rituals before the game may increase focus and decrease anxiety.
Superstitious thinking may also provide a psychological defense against learned helplessness. In a perceived hopeless situation, a superstitious person is more likely to keep trying than a non-superstitious person.
Rhodes also cites Dr Stuart Wilson, lecturer in psychology, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, who suggests that some of the stranger things we believe in are understandable when we consider the way we naturally process information. Human perception is extremely efficient at detecting patterns and finding links: “Knowing that X is linked to Y is the first step to knowing X causes Y, which is the first step to manipulating X so Y happens.”
Making links between disparate concepts and visualizing causal consequences of hypothetical scenarios is part of what makes human thinking unique.
However, Wilson goes on to explain, our capacity to automatically detect patterns could result in mistakes, sometimes causing us to see connections between events that are in fact entirely random.
This is a cognitive illusion, analogous to a visual illusion that shows us something that is not real. With a visual illusion it is relatively easy to see how you have been fooled, but not so easy with cognitive illusions. Superstition is an example of a cognitive illusion and this may be one reason why superstition is so persistent.
In summary, everyday superstitions like lucky charms may actually be helpful, particularly if we are feeling a loss of control. However this does not apply to anything that puts our sense of control outside ourselves, e.g. belief in psychics, crystals, exorcists, etc.
And finally my favourite anecdote regarding scientists and superstition: It is said that a visitor once came to the home of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and, having noticed a horseshoe hung above the entrance, asked incredulously if the professor believed horseshoes brought good luck. “No,” Bohr replied, “but I am told that they bring luck even to those who do not believe in them.”
William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC http://understandingscience.ucc.ie