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"The superstitious man is to the rogue what the slave is to the tyrant." --Voltaire
A superstition is a false belief based on ignorance (e.g., if we don't beat the drums during an eclipse, the evil demon won't return the sun to the sky), fear of the unknown (e.g., if we don't chop up this chicken in just the right way and burn it according to tradition while uttering just the right incantations then the rain won't come and our crops won't grow and we'll starve), trust in magic (e.g., if I put spit or dirt on my beautiful child who has been praised, the effects of the evil eye will be averted), trust in chance (if I open this book randomly and let my finger fall to any word that word will guide my future actions), or some other false conception of causation (e.g., homeopathy, therapeutic touch, vitalism, creationism, or that I'll have good luck if I carry a rabbit's foot or bad luck if a black cat crosses my path).
The indiscriminate power of nature is obvious. For as long as humans have been making sounds and instruments, magical methods have been created in the attempt to control the forces of nature and the life and death matters of daily existence. Good and evil befall us without rhyme or reason. We imagine spirits or intelligible forces causing our good and bad fortune. We invent ways to placate them or direct them. Many of the superstitions we developed seemed to work because we didn't know how to properly evaluate them. There are many instances of selective thinking that might lead to a superstitious belief that something is good or bad luck, for example. The "curse of Pele" exemplifies this kind of superstition. According to one website devoted to the legend of the Hawaiian goddess Pele:
It is well known to locals on the island of Hawaii, that there is a curse upon those who take one of Pele's lava rocks. It is said that he who takes a lava rock, is taking something from Pele and shall receive bad luck because of it. In the old days people were said to die from the curse, but now you only receive bad luck.
Every day, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park receives several rocks from people who took them home from the park and are returning them because of the bad luck they've had since taking the rocks. Many of these people think there is a causal connection between their taking the rocks and their perceived bad luck because their bad luck came after they took the rocks. Of course, their perceived bad luck may have happened even if they hadn't taken any rocks from the park. Or they may not have paid much attention to the "bad luck" had they not heard there was a curse associated with taking the rocks. Such people may not reflect on the fact that it would be a rare person who would go through life without any "bad luck," so the likelihood that after taking the rock nothing bad would ever happen in their lives is about zero. Also, nobody knows how many people have taken rocks and have not had any noticeable change in their luck. Such people are not likely to notify the Park Service of their lack of bad fortune. Nor are those who have had a run of good fortune after taking rocks likely to announce it to the world, since it is illegal to take home rocks as souvenirs. Selective perception, selective memory, post hoc reasoning, and the tendency to confirmation bias will solidify the superstition.
Athletes are notoriously superstitious. They engage in irrational pre-game rituals such as praying to an almighty being to help their team win or eating chicken to help with getting hits (Wade Boggs). Many have superstitions about not washing their clothing after a win or loss or wearing certain numbers. Some wear a talisman, such as a holy medal or lucky shamrock. They believe in "lucky" bats or shirts.
] Anyone watching the 2010 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers saw many players, especially pitchers, wearing one or more necklaces. Pitcher Randy Johnson brought the fad to the U.S. in 2002 when he discovered that many Japanese baseball players were wearing them. The necklaces are now worn by hundreds of professional baseball players who think they give them energy, improve circulation, and reduce muscle stress. The necklaces are "twisted ropes permeated with aqua titanium" and are manufactured by Phiten. Scott McDonald, a Seattle-based sales and marketing representative for Phiten, says that "everybody has electricity running through their bodies" and "this product stabilizes that flow of electricity if you're stressed or tired. Pitchers are seeing that they aren't as sore." Whatever. Of course, the company has plenty of testimonials, but no scientific evidence that their product is anything but a head game. Business is brisk. Phiten sells dozens of products that are attractive to many professional basketball players and golfers, as well as baseball players. All of these products seem to have titanium in them and whether it be a piece of jewelry, a cream, or a tape the product is backed by pseudoscientific jargon:
Bioelectric current is disturbed by stress and fatigue caused by the hectic pace of modern life. Realign your vital current with this tape coated with Carbonized Titanium. Use these discs to help pinpoint specific areas - their small size makes it convenient to keep on hand.
Nobody ever went broke overestimating the gullibility of professional athletes. Phiten, based in Torrance, California, has been an official Major League Baseball licensee since 2007.
Gamblers are also notoriously superstitious. They're likely to think that a slot machine "is due" or that a particular machine or dealer is their "lucky machine" or "lucky dealer."
Superstitious beliefs are universal. Every culture has its irrational causal beliefs, but some cultures are exceeding superstitious even in the 21st century. For example, the use of astrologers is still widespread in India, a country with many superstitions.*
The Chinese are particularly superstitious, especially about numbers.
Some Chinese gamblers even avoid certain hotel room numbers like "58" (sounds similar to "won't prosper" in Cantonese) or "4" (sounds similar to "die" in Cantonese) and choose positive hotel room numbers like "18" (sounds similar to "will definitely prosper" in Cantonese) or "84" (sounds similar to "prosperous until death" in Cantonese).*
Four is an unlucky number in Japan, Korea, and Hawaii. The word for 4, shi, is homophonous with the word for death.
Thirteen is considered an unlucky number to some people in the U.S. Others consider thirteen a lucky number.
Many professions have developed their own superstitions but this is not the place to try to list them all because to do so would bring bad luck.
The driving force behind seeing patterns where there are none is hidden in the mists of natural selection. We've evolved to see patterns and this natural tendency often leads us to see many false causal connections. The main driving forces behind superstition are ignorance and fear of the unknown or unpredictable. Superstitious beliefs give us the illusion of control over events that we don't understand. With our superstitious beliefs and practices, we try to control things that aren't even known to be controllable.
Many religious believers correctly see other religions as full of superstitions. The foundation of one religion is considered base superstition by another.* Religious superstitions give us the illusion of power over important life and death matters. All we need do is utter prayers, or chant, or dance with our feathers pointed in the right direction and we can overcome sickness and death, bring on good luck and ward off evil. We have invisible allies in the sky, the air, the earth. We can call on them when the going gets rough. They give us power and make us feel strong, at least until the next tsunami wipes out a few thousand unsuspecting people in a matter of hours. Of course, we are so clever that we have superstitions to explain the failure of our superstitions. We didn't do the ritual properly or we didn't have enough faith in our spirits or we've been too evil to deserve protection or we misplaced a comma in the transcription of our sacred scriptures.
Sometimes superstitions may contain a grain of truth. For example, the belief in maternal impressions was deemed a superstition in the early twentieth century, but it is now taken for granted that a fetus can be significantly affected by the mother's physical and emotional experiences. And, if you believe the gypsy who predicted you would die at 43 is correct, your anxiety might well contribute to your early death, fulfilling the prophecy.
See also amulet, charm, divination, faith healing, friggatriskaidekaphobia, I Ching, magick, magical thinking, miracle, paraskevidekatriaphobia, sympathetic magic, Tooth Fairy science, and triskaidekaphobia.
books and articles
Lindeman, M. & Saher, M. (2007). Vitalism, Purpose and Superstition. British Journal of Psychology, 98, (1), 33-44. Abstract.
Priest rids house of fire demon The exorcist "laid out his apparatus, saying he would be using a religious candle, holy water and oil, and incense to rid the house of its evil spirit." This was not in some backward medieval village in 1325, but in Zambia in May 2010. The evil spirit is even identified as "a spiteful relative" who burns their furniture. "During the final tour of the house, Father Mike also stopped to make the sign of the cross at the windows and doors." He then crossed his fingers, knocked on wood, and spat three times into the wind.
new 13 Common (But Silly) Superstitions Many superstitions stem from the same human trait that causes us to believe in monsters and ghosts: When our brains can't explain something, we make stuff up. In fact, a study last year found that superstitions can sometimes work, because believing in something can improve on a task. [/new]
Superstitions – Not
All Bad? Neurologica by Steven Novella
Researchers found that “activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.” Specifically, experiments by Damisch et al. found that activating good-luck-related superstitions via a common saying or action (e.g., "break a leg," keeping one's fingers crossed) or a lucky charm improved subsequent performance in golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games.
They [Damisch et al.] also found this improved performance effect was partly explained by improved “self efficacy assessment” and partly by increased task persistence. Subjects were more confident and they engaged in the task more. If true that could mean that belief in superstitions may provide a specific selective advantage, and not just be a side effect of our psychological makeup.
To make things more interesting, other research indicates a small tendency for superstitious beliefs to correlate with a lower self-efficacy assessment. So superstitious people may have lower confidence at baseline. But what is the cause and effect? Do superstitions arise in people with low confidence as a compensatory mechanism, or does belief in superstitions cause lower confidence – perhaps a surrendering of control to the magical agent? Both directions of causation could be at work in a self-reinforcing effect.
Master of the Universe (Christoph Niemann brings art and superstition together in the service of humor.)