The Psychology of Superstition

Is 'magical' thinking hurting or helping you?

From the WebMD Archives

If you're like most people, you occasionally participate in superstitious thinking or behavior often without even realizing you're doing it. Just think: When was the last time you knocked on wood, walked within the lines, avoided a black cat, or read your daily horoscope? These are all examples of superstitions or what Stuart Vyse, PhD, and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, calls magical thinking.

More than half of Americans admitted to being at least a little superstitious, according to a recent Gallup poll. Additionally, beliefs in witches, ghosts and haunted houses -- all popular Halloween symbols -- have increased over the past decade. But just what is the psychology behind our magical thinking, and is it hurting or helping us? When does superstitious thinking go too far? Was Stevie Wonder right: When you believe in things that you don't understand, do you suffer?

Superstition, Ritual, or Anxiety?

In our quest to understand superstitions, let's start by defining them. After all, not all rituals or beliefs are superstitions. "The dividing line is whether you give some kind of magical significance to the ritual," Vyse tells WebMD.

For example, if an athlete develops a ritual before a game, something Vyse says many coaches encourage, it may help to calm and focus him or her like repeating a mantra. "That's not superstitious," says Vyse. On the other hand, he says if you think tapping the ball a certain number of times makes you win the game, you've entered superstitious territory.

You might be wondering if certain superstitious behaviors -- such as like counting the number of times you tap a ball -- are really a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD often have compulsions to do rituals over and over again, often interfering with everyday life. A good example is Jack Nicholson's character in the movie As Good As It Gets, who skips cracks in the sidewalk and eats at the same table in the same restaurant every day, with an inability to cope with any change in routine. While some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious behavior (and the two aren't mutually exclusive) Vyse says most of the evidence would indicate there is no connection between the two.

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"We don't think of anxiety disorders [such as OCD] as superstitious thinking. We think of it as irrational thinking, and most of our patients understand that," says Paul Foxman, PhD, an anxiety expert from Burlington, Vt. "But I do have patients that tell me that they believe that if they don't worry about something, then the likelihood of it happening will go up, and that is a superstitious thought," he says.

The key is to pay attention to your own thinking, particularly if you experience any symptoms of anxiety -- tension, excessive worry, trouble sleeping, obsessive thoughts and exhaustion, for example. If you experience these symptoms or find that you have repetitive ritualized behavior that's out of control -- superstitious or not -- get professional help from a doctor or therapist.

Driving Forces

Wanting more control or certainty is the driving force behind most superstitions. We tend to look for some kind of a rule, or an explanation for why things happen. "Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty at all, and that is what much of the research suggests," says Vyse.

Job interviews, testing, and other situations where we want things to go well -- regardless of our own preparation or performance -- can spur superstitious thoughts. "We are often in situations in life where something really important is about to happen, we've prepared for it as best we can, but it's still uncertain; it's still unclear," Vyse says. No matter how confident or prepared you are for an event -- whether it's a football game, a wedding, or a presentation -- things can still happen beyond your control. "Superstitions provide people with the sense that they've done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for."

Friend or Foe?

A sense of security and confidence are perhaps the greatest benefits we get emotionally from superstitious thinking or behavior -- like carrying an object or wearing an item of clothing that you deem to be lucky.

Foxman says there is a positive placebo effect -- if you think something will help you, it may do just that. "There is a tremendous amount of power in belief," he says. If the outcome is a matter of pure luck, beliefs don't really have any impact, however, when your performance is a key factor in an outcome, superstitious thinking might give you an extra boost.

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"There can be a real psychological effect of superstitious thoughts," says Vyse. If you've done well before when you had a particular shirt on, for example, it might prove wise to wear the shirt again, if it helps to relieve anxiety and promotes positive thoughts. But this way of thinking can also hinder your performance, if say, you lose your lucky object.

It's not news that expectations can be extremely powerful and suggestive. Studies regularly point to placebo effects (both positive and negative), which are entirely caused by the power of expectations or preconceptions. Yet superstitions can also play a negative role in our lives, especially when combined with a bad habit such as gambling. If you're a compulsive gambler who believes that you can get lucky, then that belief may contribute to your problem.

Phobic (fearful) superstitions can also interfere with our lives, and cause a lot of anxiety, says Vyse. For example, people who are afraid of Friday the 13th might change travel arrangements or skip an appointment because of unnecessary anxiety. These types of superstitions offer no benefit at all.

And the Award for Most Superstitious Goes to ...

Being superstitious is something we often learn as children, and according to the Gallup poll, older folks are less likely to believe in superstitions.

Generally speaking, women are more superstitious than men, Vyse says. When was the last time you saw an astrology column in a men's magazine? Women may also experience more anxiety, or at least, more women than men seek help for anxiety problems. Although personality variables are not a strong factor in developing superstition, there is some evidence that if you are more anxious than the average person you're slightly more likely to be superstitious.

Vyse says our locus of control can also be a factor contributing to whether or not we are superstitious. If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that you are in charge of everything; you are the master of your fate and you can make things happen. If you have an external locus of control, "you're sort of buffeted by life, and things happen to you instead of the other way around," Vyse tells WebMD. People with external locus of control are more likely to be superstitious, possibly as a way of getting more power over their lives. "Part of the reason why women are more superstitious than men is that women feel, even in today's modern society, that they have less control over their fate than men do."

Intelligence seems to have little to do with whether or not we subscribe to superstitions. Vyse says that on the Harvard campus -- where one would assume there are a lot of intelligent people -- students frequently rub the foot of the statue of John Harvard for good luck. In a sense, a superstition, like other rituals, can become part of a campus, community or culture, and can help bring people together. "Most of the superstitions people engage in are perfectly fine, and are not pathological," says Vyse. Now that's good news, and it's just in time for Halloween.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD

Sources

Published Oct. 4, 2004.

SOURCES: Stuart Vyse, PhD, professor and chair, department of psychology, Connecticut College; author, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Paul Foxman, PhD, director, Center for Anxiety Disorders, Burlington, Vt. Press Release, The Gallup Organization web site.
© 2004 WebMD, Inc. All rights Reserved.

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