It’s just a superstition – but is it harmless?

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October 31, 2022 Airports usually exclude Gate 13. Some buildings skip the 13th floor. And Friday the 13th isn’t known for being lucky.

The fear of the number 13 is a superstition with a complicated name – triskaidekaphobia. Of course, the idea that the number 13 is bad luck isn’t rational, and for most, discomfort with the number doesn’t rise to the level of a phobia. And yet very many people give number a subtle (or overt) power over their actions.

What about broken mirrors? black cats? Walk under ladders? Whether we believe in superstitions or not, they can influence our behavior. Where does superstition come from and how can it have so much power in our lives?

“No one is born superstitious, they learn it,” says Stuart Vyse, PhD, psychologist and author of Belief in Magic: The Psychology of Superstitionwhich received the William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association.

And while there’s no scientific evidence that the number 13 is bad luck or somehow related to more mishaps, popular superstition is just that – popular and widespread. “Even the business world knows this superstition and would rather not deal with it,” says Vyse.

He points out that many superstitions have ancient origins and are associated with supernatural or paranormal activity. Sometimes in connection with religious or anti-religious activities, the word “superstition” is often used as an insult.

Neil Dagnall, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, says like it or not, superstitions have just become part of the culture that’s passed from one person to another, “no matter how hard you try “to resist”. And this cultural acceptance of superstitions means they have the power to influence how we think and, in extreme cases, how we behave, he says.

Bad omens and lucky charms

Personal superstitions that a black cat crossing your path is an ominous sign or a lucky charm can also stem from personal experience, says Dagnall. When people connect two unrelated events – like winning a sporting event while wearing a specific jersey or pair of socks “Once you see that connection, it can be quite difficult to stop because it’s spontaneous and unconscious,” he says.

This illusion is an example of psychology’s dual process theory, popularized as “fast and slow thinking” by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, PhD. Superstitions arise from the quick, intuitive thought process rather than from more conscious critical thinking. Maybe there is even one evolutionary advantage To develop and maintain superstitions based on intuitive connections. The cost of following a false superstition is usually quite small, but the occasional benefits that come from correctly connecting two seemingly unrelated events can be high enough to ensure that the habit persists in the human psyche.

Whatever their origins, superstitions are, in most cases, a kind of coping mechanism for situations in which we want something good to happen—or prevent something bad—but have no control over it. Acting on a superstition can help us deal with the fear that comes with this lack of control.

Fear of what comes next

“There’s no magic, it doesn’t really work, but the illusion of control helps us cope with fear,” says Vyse. This is why so many superstitions in sports revolve around single, high-stakes events, like a free throw in basketball or a penalty shoot-out in soccer.

While some people are true believers who cannot be convinced that their superstitions have no basis in reality, even those who know they are not real often give in and reap the same anxiety-reducing benefits. “They tend to say they just don’t want to take the risk,” says Vyse, even though they realize it’s silly.

In medicine we see what is known as Placebo effect when people who have been given a substance with no therapeutic value still benefit from it and feel better.

And the opposite also happens.

Sometimes people mistakenly believe that an intervention would cause harm. They feel worse after taking a placebo, even if there is no therapeutic effect, and still have negative side effects. This is called the nocebo effectand it is the belief in the treatment, not the procedure itself, that causes harm, and it is a sometimes overlooked phenomenon in drug safety.

If our minds are so powerful that they can help us feel better without medication or feel worse after a sham treatment just because we believe it, can we use those same ideas to our advantage?

In Germany, researchers told a group of golfers that they had received a lucky ball. The golfers attempted 10 short putts a study. Those who were prepared for their ball to get lucky made 65% of their putts. And a second group of golfers who weren’t told their ball was lucky made only 48% of their putts.

But if researchers in the US tried it Copy this study, they were not so lucky and found no difference between the two groups. “We have a situation where the effect seems plausible, but the evidence is unclear,” says Vyse.

Both Vyse and Dagnall say that in the vast majority of cases, superstitions are harmless and they wouldn’t bother to talk anyone out of it. But in some cases, superstitions can inspire so much anxiety and fear that it becomes a debilitating phobia or crosses the line into obsessive-compulsive disorder. In such situations, more direct psychiatric help is needed, focused on breaking the false connection between cause and effect. “You have to try every day to think critically rather than intuitively,” says Dagnall. But that’s not always easy. “Counteracting intuitive feelings can lead to more anxiety,” he admits.

Confirmation bias also plays a big role in reinforcing superstitions, Vyse says. People tend to remember the times when a superstition seemed to work. To overcome it, you need to look more closely at your history to identify all the times it didn’t work, that you don’t remember, or that you didn’t consider. “Take a closer look and gradually develop a story of bad things that didn’t happen.”


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It’s just a superstition – but is it harmless?
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