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It's Unlucky to Be Superstitious (or Is It?)

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Knowing your own natural superstitious tendencies can help you avoid them leading you astray

Crossed FingersSuperstition is so common it's clear it taps into a deep part of the human psyche

Did you know that it's unlucky to be superstitious?

Apparently superstitious beliefs can lower house prices, cause deaths in traffic accidents and even increase infant mortality. I repeat: it is unlucky to be superstitious.

Okay, let's calm down a little. It can be unlucky to be superstitious, at least in some contexts. Sometimes we don't really believe in the superstition, but still feel as though it compels us.

We can believe all kinds of stuff, or even believe and not believe at the same time - as expressed in the sentiment "I know this is crazy but I still believe it!" Being superstitious needn't always be a bad thing.

If we use superstition to help us feel more in control then it can work for us. Ritual is important in setting intention and helping us feel connected to some element of truth far greater than ourselves, and that can be empowering.

But like any emotional pattern, when it starts to run us, rather than us controlling it, it can cause all kinds of unintended chaos.

And like many emotionally driven behaviours, superstition can be contagious in social networks (Strang & Meyer, 1993). If we're not careful we can come to believe something simply because other people believe it.

And of course superstition can take just about any form.

From unlucky 13 (the Romans believed that the number 13 was a symbol of death and destruction), to touching wood and crossing fingers 'for luck', to not walking under a ladder lest we 'break the holy trinity', superstitions are everywhere and powerfully influence us - if we let them.

Superstition can even infect what we might consider wholly rational enterprises.

There are, apparently, no houses numbered 13 in Paris. For decades the Savoy in London didn't allow parties of 13 to dine at the hotel and went so far as have a member of staff make up the numbers.

The reasons for superstition are simple. We want to stave off bad luck and invite good luck. But sometimes it's the superstitious thinking itself that invites the bad luck.

Bad luck or bad practice?

Housing markets

Superstitions can mess up the housing market, at least that's what some research on house numbers of 13 suggests. Peckham and Bhagwat (1993) found that one in ten people who lived at number 13 believed their house number had brought them bad luck.

The researchers were curious to discover whether this widespread belief would affect house prices. They conducted a nationwide survey asking estate agents whether people were resistant to buying houses numbered 13. A whopping 40% of agents replied that there was considerable resistance and that this often resulted in sellers having to lower their prices (Hamilton, 2017). So if you're thinking of buying number 13, bear in mind that it may not be easy to sell it on again.

An unlucky (for the sellers) superstition, if ever there was one. But there are more serious matters at stake than the number of your house. Can what you believe determine how long you live?

Nothing to fear but fear itself

Fewer people seem to travel on Friday 13th according to research suggesting that some motorists are nervous enough to stay home (Näyhä, 2002). The same study found that hospital admissions for traffic-related accidents were around 52% higher on Friday 13th! (There was no significant difference for any other type of accident.)

Yet more research in Finland looked at the incidence of deaths over 324 Friday 13ths, with a control of 1339 'normal' Fridays (Scalon et al., 1993). They found that 5% more men died on these fateful days, while a massive 38% more women did! They too put it down to anxious driving causing accidents, and declared that "superstition kills".

But it appears that superstition can even lead to increased newborn mortality rates, especially among girls.

The dreaded year of the fire horse

The 'year of the fire horse' comes around every 60 years according to the ancient Sino-Japanese almanac. Legend has it that females born in this year are especially prone to bad fortune.

The last fire-horse year was 1966, which saw a staggering drop in the annual female birth rate of 25% across the whole of Japan! This was partly attributable to an increase in induced abortions, to more than 20,000. But even more frightening is that newborn child mortality rates for girls (but not boys) rose significantly.

Japanese researcher Kanae Kaku and his team at Kyoto University concluded that it was possible that Japanese girls were being "sacrificed to a folk superstition" during the year of the fire horse (Kaku, 1975).

So what drives superstitious thinking? And are you prone to it?

Our natural tendency towards magical thinking

Magical thinking creates connections between different parts of reality that go beyond what can be empirically determined. These connections are believed to have a supernatural power that can be manipulated, if you know what to do: "If I touch wood, my team is more likely to score." Never mind how my touching wood hundreds of miles from where my sports team is playing can possibly influence them.

There is no logical or physical connection but rather a supernatural one.

Such thinking was pervasive in ancient times. But I suspect, subconsciously, it still is. And it can be hard to prove superstitions don't work. It's hard to prove you didn't avert some disaster by touching wood, or crossing your fingers, or saluting that lone magpie.

If you pray for the Sun to rise the next day and it does, you might conclude, as some solar worshipping cultures have, that it's your praying which keeps enabling the sunrise every day.

Now imagine the anxiety the thought of not praying might produce in you. It might amaze you to find that if for some reason you didn't pray for the Sun to rise, it still did!

But the important issue to understand here is that none of us are immune to magical thinking - and I include scientists and people who assume they are 100% rational.

So how widespread is superstition in Western culture?

How many people are superstitious?

Magical thinking pervades modern life. Gamblers have their 'lucky numbers' and lottery regulars may have complicated and ritualistic 'systems' using birthdates and the like in a bid to control the outcome of the draw.

A 2000 Gallup Poll found that 53% of Americans were at least 'a little' superstitious, and a further 25% admitted they were 'very superstitious' (Moore, 2000). In a more recent poll (see Jagel, 2014) only 13% of Americans considered themselves superstitious (I'm not liking that number!). But when asked in more depth 27% said they would knock on wood to stave off a jinx on some future event. And more than a third would pick up a penny because it would bring them good luck all day. So I guess some of the respondents didn't understand the concept of superstition all that well.

Interestingly, these same results from 2014 indicate that younger people are more superstitious than older people. Perhaps this is because younger people tend to be more idealistic and hence less discerning in what ideas they pick up or cast aside.

Anyway, it seems that magical thinking helps us feel more secure in an unpredictable world. So it's no surprise that people behave more superstitiously during times of heightened uncertainty or danger.

Like any form of compulsive thought and action, the impulse behind it is not hard to find.

Controlling the unknown unknowns

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety-driven psychological difficulty that causes people to concoct their own superstitious behaviors (such as compulsively washing). OCD also seems to flare up during times of higher than normal stress. The behavior tries to meet the need for safety , predictability, and security - but of course it becomes a problem in itself.

For many of us, believing in and acting on superstitions can bestow a sense of control. When we feel we have some kind of control then we feel calmer and less anxious. This may be why rates of superstition increase during times of greater perceived threat, stress, and uncertainty. Almost like a kind of cultural OCD.

The greater the sense of threat, the more widespread superstition may become.

The number of articles on superstition appearing in magazines and newspapers increases when a country is experiencing economic downturn and depression (Padgett & Jorgenson, 1982).

Researchers found that Israelis living in the areas "most prone to be attacked by missile" during the first Gulf War in 1991 became much more superstitious than people living in areas less likely to be attacked (Keinan, 1994). Similarly, soldiers fighting in the trenches of WWI were observed to be very superstitious (cdotb, 2016).

Some soldiers are able to overcome superstition and accept that it won't change the outcome. But there's an upside and a downside to that, too.

Fatalism: "It's just my destiny!"

One form of magical thinking is fatalism. Paradoxically, when you feel that there's nothing you can do, so you might as well accept what's coming to you (not an unrealistic assessment for soldiers fighting in the trenches in the WWI) then you can sometimes feel a sense of greater control because you have faced down your fear on some level.

But fatalism can also lead to 'learned helplessness' and make us stop looking for solutions that actually might be there, or have us assuming we are powerless when we most certainly are not.

Depression can ride on the back of passive fatalism so that what might have some small benefit in some instances can, when we overapply it, trip us up badly.

So is it really unlucky to be superstitious?

It seems that it's not going against a superstition that causes harm, but simply believing in superstition in the first place.

In a way, it can be unlucky to be superstitious, or to be the victim of other people's 'magical thinking' because then we have less true autonomy and can feel led around by the hook of our own emotionally conditioned impulses.

But lest you think I have argued a case for believing that bad luck really is attached to some of the above, we can remember the famous Thirteen Club.

This esteemed organization was set up in the 1880s by Captain William Fowler, a US civil war veteran, to flout all superstitions.

On the 13th of every month he would dine with 12 other guests as they opened umbrellas indoors, spilled salt on the tables and broke all the superstitious 'laws' they could think of. They continued this for over forty years; the membership grew into the thousands and included five successive US presidents (none of whom were assassinated). Many of the members seem to enjoy good health, longevity, and fortune.

Expectations can powerfully affect outcomes, as witnessed by the famous placebo response, which is maximized during hypnotic work.

But ultimately you can make much of your own luck, and there's nothing supernatural about that.

References

cdotb. (2016, May 13). A soldier's luck: Superstition in the First World War. Canadian Centre for the Great War.

Hamilton, P. (2017, October 13). Buying house number 13 lucky for some. The Irish Times.

Jagel, K. (2014, February 18). Young Americans are more superstitious. Lifestyle.

Kaku, K. (1975). Were girl babies sacrificed to a folk superstition in 1966 in Japan? Annals of Human Biology, 2(4): 391-393.

Keinan, G. (1994). Effects of stress and tolerance of ambiguity on magical thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(1) 48-55.

Moore, D. W. (2000, October 13). One in four Americans superstitious. Gallup News Service.

Näyhä, S. (2002). Traffic deaths and superstition on Friday the 13th. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(12), 2110-2111.

Padgett, V. R., & Jorgenson, D. O. (1982). Superstition and Economic Threat: Germany, 1918-1940. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 8(4), 736-741.

Peckham, S. E., and Bhagwat, P. G. (1993). No.13: Unlucky/lucky for some. Peckwat Publications, New Milton.

Scalon, T. J., Luben, R.N., Scanlan, F. L., and Singleton, N. (1993). Is Friday 13th bad for your health? British Medical Journal, 307(6919), 1584-1586.

Strang, D., and Meyer, J. W. (1993). Institutional conditions for diffusion. Theory and Society, 22(4), 487-511.

Published by mark.tyrrell April 10th, 2019 in