Imagine Health

Very Superstitious… The Psychology Behind Superstition

With the arrival of another Friday the 13th, you may be feeling a little uneasy today. As with black cats, lone magpies and broken mirrors, many of us associate this day with increased misfortune and accidents. These omens of bad luck and superstition – and the sometimes bizarre things we do to combat them – are widely acknowledged, even by people who might otherwise consider themselves to be quite logical.

What is a superstition?

Superstitious behaviour happens when we believe that one event causes another event without the involvement of any natural process. In a lot of cases, the superstitious ritual we perform actually has extremely little to do with the outcome we’re seeking. Wearing your lucky watch to an interview may have been what got you the job, but it more than likely wasn’t the only factor. So why do we sometimes act as if it was? One theory is that superstitious behaviour results from the uncertainty hypothesis – if we are unsure of an outcome, we will try to find a way to control it.

But what if our superstitious rituals actually do lead to better performance? One study by Damisch and colleagues in 2010 suggests this might be the case. In a series of four experiments, they found that activating good-luck-related superstitions by using a common saying or action (such as “break a leg” or keeping one’s fingers crossed) or by way of a lucky charm, improves subsequent performance in memory, anagram games, motor dexterity and golfing. As unlikely as this might seem, the researchers identified that the mechanism behind this improved performance is an increase in perceived self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our personal belief in our own capabilities to see a task through or succeed in a particular situation. By activating a superstition, the participants in the study boosted their confidence in mastering the subsequent tasks, which in turn improved their performance.

Superstition and Anxiety – Where is the Line?

Superstitious behaviour and rituals are generally harmless features of most of our lives. However, when a need to engage in a ritual becomes an essential part of a person’s life or leads to any of the symptoms of anxiety – excessive worry, tension or obsessive thoughts – it has crossed from being the ‘magical’ thinking of superstition to the ‘irrational’ thinking of a problem behaviour.

Believe in Yourself, Not Luck!

You may believe that today is especially lucky, unlucky or just the same as any other Friday. However, the important thing to remember is that it is you, not the power of superstition, that has control over many of the things that happen in your life!

Written by Tess O’Leary, Assistant Psychologist