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Believing the Unbelievable: Psychology and Superstitions

There are many times when one chooses to consider what may not be real or completely believable. One such instance is when people indulge in superstitious behaviour. Psychology views superstitions as a cognitive error which one can choose to override. Some common examples for these involve a black cat crossing the road while one is travelling on it which is seen as an omen, or when one is going out of the house, or someone asks the person where they are going, the person going out should wait for a while before venturing out or if someone sneezes right before one is about to leave the person going out should not leave immediately to avoid accidents. Another surprising example is that one should not keep their friend’s handkerchief as it will lead to fights between the two!

Similarly, one which is very prominent in brown households is using scissors in the air without cutting anything that is a precedent for a fight between family members. Indians commonly use chilli and lemon to ward off the evil. Many trucks use the phrase “buri nazar waale tera muh kaala”, which loosely translates to ‘the one who bestows an evil eye may you be shamed/insulted.’

There are some superstitions which are shared by a large number of people or particular groups. Gustav Jahoda (1969) coined the term ‘socially shared superstitions’ which are influenced by one’s culture, for example, many Americans don’t marry on Friday the 13th due to anticipated bad luck. Another common belief is jinxing good performance by commenting on it or by being overconfident over it (Burn, 2018); to counteract these people knock on wood or throw salt. The notion behind this is to not ‘tempt fate’ and decrease the chances of something terrible happening. Tempting fate beliefs have been linked with magical thinking, external locus of control (such as belief in God, fate, luck which determine one’s success and failure) and reliance on intuitive thinking rather than rational thought (Risen and Gilovich, 2018).

A study suggests that people under high stress have an increased likelihood of engaging in these behaviours (Keinan, 2002). These people also showed a more increased need for control. Engaging in superstitions provide one a level of control. When one has a sense of control, they experience some form of predictability which automatically makes one feel more comfortable with what might happen. The world is chaotic, and any sense of predictability fed by seemingly meaningless actions are acceptable over no predictability. Even when such predictability provides false certainty, it proves to be better than absolutely no assurance. This becomes particularly important when one looks forward to attending a critical or unnerving event such as a sports match or an interview.

Many say that superstitions provide a placebo effect on people. There are some of these rituals or behaviours which are associated with good luck and maybe private to the person. These rituals usually include wearing the same clothes to actual events; good luck charms and favourite numbers or even asking a ‘lucky person’ to accompany. These ‘good luck’ superstitious behaviours increase in the circumstances of more uncertainty combined with stress. In one way stress undermines the level of confidence one feels, making them more uncertain which is alleviated through superstitious behaviours. This is indeed true because studies indicate that these behaviours reduce anxiety (Sandoiu, 2019) and increase a person’s perceived level of control. The research also suggests that entertaining superstitious thoughts can improve performance by providing some level of assurance. Thus, as Foxman said, when superstitions act as a placebo one may start experiencing benefits from it as they start believing it will work in their favour (Albert, 2004).

How do superstitious behaviours work?

Jane Risen presented a theory to explain why people engage in superstitious behaviour. This is demonstrated through two channels or systems which are involved in the identification, interaction and sustenance of superstitions; also called the “dual-process model” of superstition (Risen, 2015).

Source: Model as given by Risen (2015)

System 1: This is guided by intuitive thinking and includes gut reactions to the environment which are immediate. It is directed by stereotypes and snaps of judgments. When this system works following superstitions, it does three things: first, it tries to find or establish a cause and effect to make sense of the world. This may be done through simple acts like “I wore this shirt to my date last time and it went very well, so I should wear it again!” Second, this system asks the person to not tempt fate. It may then lead to thoughts like “What if I don’t wear this shirt and my date goes wrong?” such thoughts make one think that the cost of engaging in the superstition is less than the dreaded outcome. Last, it makes one thrive on confirmation bias, people go back in their time to procure memories which support the expected result.

System 2: This system involves rational thinking which is slower than the intuitive one and is characteristically more objective in nature. The primary function of this system is to override the first system when it detects an error in intuitive judgment. Often times, even when the second system detects an error, the person may choose to overlook it. This means every time an error is detected, it may not be corrected. It is argued that people willfully ignore the second system even when the behaviours engaged in are illogical or meaningless. This happens again because indulging in superstitions is easier than entertaining the thought of something negative occurring, and these negative consequences can be imagined almost immediately or involuntarily.

All individuals are capable of overcoming this ‘magical thinking’ when the first system kicks in the automatic superstitious response. However, without any prior evidence to negate the superstition people end up feeding the cycle, which provides them with a little window to challenge the existing repertoire of behaviours.


Albert, S. (2004). The Psychology of Superstition.

Burn, S. (2018). Very Superstitious | Psychology Today.

Risen, J. L., & Gilovich, T. (2018). Understanding people’s fear of tempting fate. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 3, 599-611.

Risen, J. L. (2015). Believing What We Do Not Believe: Acquiescence to Superstitious Beliefs and Other Powerful Intuitions.

Sandoiu, A. (2019). The psychology of superstition.

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