A little superstitious? You’re not alone

How would you like to see an honest-to-goodness witch flying by your place at midnight this Halloween? Just put your clothes on inside out, start walking around backward, and it’ll happen.

At least that’s how the superstition goes. If you believe in that sort of thing.

And there’s a good chance that you do. Polls consistently show that about half of all Americans hold some superstitious beliefs (although not necessarily the fly-by one).

Superstitions are claims of a particular type — namely, that if X happens, then Y will happen, where (and this part is crucial) by all the rules of science and logic and simple common sense, X and Y have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. In short, “by definition, superstitious beliefs are irrational beliefs,” says Duane McClearn, a professor of psychology at Elon University in Elon, N.C.


Then why are they so widespread? Can 150 million people all be knocking on the wood of the wrong tree?

It’s a question that has long intrigued researchers. Many have looked — with mixed success — for links between superstitious beliefs and various types of cognitive weakness or psychological maladjustment in the people who hold them. Others have suggested that the answer lies with an attribute all human beings share: a strong drive to make causal connections. It’s a drive that has led to civilization-altering discoveries, such as fire, electricity and the remote (“If I push this button, the channel will change, and I won’t even have to move”). But when the drive goes into overdrive, so to speak, crazy superstitions can ensue.

Scientists have discovered a lot about why people are so prone to holding unscientific beliefs. So remember: What you don’t know about superstition may come back to haunt you.

Superstitions abound around just about everything — from unlucky black cats to lucky orange socks. Men have them. Women have them. And if parents have them, their kids may not be far behind. “Children learn much from hearsay from adults,” says Terry Au, professor of psychology at the University of Hong Kong.


In one experiment in her lab, a researcher showed children (3 to 5 years old) a “memory stone” from Thailand and told them, “If you rub your head with the stone when you study, it improves your memory.” Then the researcher played a memory game with the children. “And sure enough,” Au says, “the little ones started rubbing their heads with the stone.”

During changeovers in his matches, Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 tennis player in the world, reportedly takes one sip from each of two water bottles — one chilled, one not, then lines them up just so with the labels facing the side he will be serving from. Habit? Ritual? Superstition? Whatever the reason for Nadal’s actions, a number of studies have found that many athletes engage in behaviors that look pretty superstitious to others, e.g., carrying a lucky charm, repeating a secret phrase, wearing the same clothes over and over during a winning streak.

And in a 2004 study, McClearn found that in non-athletes, merely having an interest in sports was correlated with a belief in sports-related superstition.

In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, W. Scott Wood and Maria Clapham, psychology professors at Drake University in Des Moines, found that gamblers are more likely to be superstitious than non-gamblers. On the other hand, superstition does not seem to be to blame for losing the farm: Big-bucks bettors were no more superstitious than those who stuck to smaller stakes.

Superstition is rife on college campuses too, a number of studies have shown. In one published in 2004, 275 students were asked to imagine they had three lottery tickets: One contained their “lucky numbers,” another contained computer-generated numbers and the third had been found blowing down the street.

When given the option of keeping or giving away any of the three tickets, students were most likely to keep the one with their lucky numbers and most likely to give away the one with computer-generated numbers. And when given the option to exchange the ticket with their lucky numbers for two tickets with computer-generated numbers — and thus doubling their chances of winning — nearly half of the students still elected to keep the ticket with their lucky numbers.

What’s going on?

“Most believers in miracles, monsters, and mysteries are not hoaxers, flimflam artists, or lunatics. Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong in some way,” writes Michael Shermer, the executive director of the Skeptics Society in Altadena, in his 1997 book “Why People Believe Weird Things.” In explaining this wrong thinking, Shermer points to our human predilection for finding connections, for figuring out what causes what. That trait is ubiquitous — and very important. But it’s not infallible.


“We’d be paralyzed if we had to think everything through completely all the time,” says Jeffrey Rudski, a psychology professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. “We’re wired to be able to learn to think heuristically.”

That means sometimes we make connections that aren’t there, which is unfortunate. But if we concentrate too much on avoiding spurious connections, we can miss connections that really do exist. And that can have more dire consequences. If we decide that every mushroom in the world can poison us, that will deprive us of certain dining pleasures. But if we fail to realize that some mushrooms can poison us, that can do us in.

The upshot: We’re not as smart as we’d like to be. We’re going to make mistakes. But our brains are designed to err on the side of making the most innocuous ones — by linking things they shouldn’t rather than not linking things they should.

In a paper published in 2009, two scientists developed a mathematical model of what types of connection-making would be favored from an evolutionary standpoint.

They found that the most successful strategies are those that may, indeed, lead to frequent errors but that yield a big payoff when they turn out to be right. And they concluded that superstitions are an inevitable feature of adaptive behavior in all sorts of organisms, including not just people but animals too. “The bottom line is simple,” says lead author Kevin Foster, now a research fellow at the University of Oxford in England. “In an uncertain world, natural selection can readily favor making all kinds of associations between events, including many incorrect ones, in order to make sure that the really important associations are made.”

And once an association is made, it may be hard to unmake it, McClearn adds. “With a lot of these beliefs, they hold on hard. They can be very resistant to change, even in the face of disconfirming evidence.”

A number of studies have found links between superstitious beliefs and certain maladaptive behaviors — (anxiety accompanied by a strong need for control, for example). Such studies have typically focused on superstitions about dooming yourself to bad luck — e.g., by opening an umbrella indoors or having a black cat cross your path.

But the story may be different for positive superstitions. In 2004, two British scientists surveyed more than 4,000 people via the Internet about their beliefs in three of these — crossing fingers, knocking on wood, carrying a lucky charm — as well as three negative superstitions — walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, the number 13. They found that people who scored high on a single measure of neuroticism (how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement “I tend to worry about life”) believed more strongly in positive and negative superstitions. But the difference between them and the non-worriers was especially great for the negative ones.


Positive superstitions may operate differently from negative ones, the authors concluded, and they may serve a different psychological function, such as promoting optimism and confidence in one’s ability to achieve certain goals.

Positive superstitions may, in fact, truly help some people get on better in life, according to a German study that looked at how well people performed certain skilled tasks.

From a logical perspective, you should not putt a golf ball any more accurately just because someone told you ahead of time, “So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball.”

Nor should you be faster at manipulating a plastic cube until 36 little balls land in 36 little holes just because someone told you before you started trying, “I press the thumbs for you.” (it seems slightly less weird when you know that people were doing these things in Germany where “I press the thumbs for you” means the same as “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”)

Nonetheless, the study — published earlier this year — found participants did perform both these tasks faster and more accurately when they were first told those good-luck things.

The authors did not conclude that “lucky balls” made putters more skillful or that pressed thumbs made cube-manipulators more deft. Rather, they concluded —- using additional data from two more tasks — that when the putters were told about their balls being lucky and the manipulators were told that thumbs were being pressed for them, they were reminded of superstitions they had long held. “Activating a superstitious belief makes people feel more confident,” says lead author Lysann Damisch, a psychology professor at the University of Cologne. “It makes them believe that they can actually master a given task that, finally, indeed leads to a better performance.”

Medical professionals are not immune to the superstition bug, as shown by studies in this country and elsewhere. In an especially detailed 2007 survey of 68 doctors, nurses and medical students in Singapore, researchers at the National University there found that only 11 came right out and said they were superstitious. Yet many of them expressed suspiciously superstitious-like beliefs: Thirty-one said it was bad luck to eat bao (meat dumplings); six said it was bad luck to wear outfits of a certain color while on call (with five saying black was the culprit, and one fingering red); 14 said bathing before call duty would keep it from being too hectic (with six recommending a seven-flower bath); 24 said they thought certain people — “black clouds” — could bring them bad luck when they were on call; and 32 said the four fateful words “having a good call” would never, ever escape their lips until after their duty was safely over.

The researchers also claimed to have discovered two previously undocumented superstitions: Namely, it’s good luck to eat bread, and it’s bad luck to eat beef.

And so progress is made.