Illustration by Tanya Burr

A black cat darts across the sidewalk in front of me. I move to the other side of the street so I don’t cross its path, then step over a crack so I don’t break my mother’s back. I may be a superstitious weirdo, but I’m not the only one. Fifty percent of Americans admit to being superstitious, meaning they believe in the significance of some event without any rational explanation. While this behavior may seem silly from the outside, we might want to keep avoiding those black cats: Research suggests superstition can help give us a sense of control over our lives and even boost our confidenceLacking control increases illusory pattern perception. Whitson J.A., Galinsky A.D., Department of Management, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX. Science 2008 Oct 3;322(5898):115-7..

Just Another Friday the 13th? — The Need to Know

In the USA, some people think the number 13 is lucky or unlucky; others fear that breaking a mirror will bring them seven years of bad luck; still others never walk under ladders. In China, people planning weddings avoid dates with the number four, which sounds like the Chinese word for “death.”

Superstition, a type of “magical thinking,” describes an irrational belief in supernatural influences. And it’s possible that our belief in magic is a product of human evolution. In other words, if an animal hears rustling and sees a predator, every time he hears rustling he’ll think it’s an attack, even if it’s just the breezeThe evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour. Foster, K., Kokko, H. Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University, 7 Divinity Avenue, Harvard, MA. Proceedings. Biological Sciences/The Royal Society 2009 January 7; 276(1654): 31–37.. (So if I ace my practice GRE in cat-print pajama pants, you better believe I’m wearing those babies when I take the real exam!)

People who feel they don’t have a lot of control over their lives are generally more likely to act superstitious, and some research suggests superstitious thinking is a way to increase our sense of self-efficacySuperstitiousness and perceived anxiety control as predictors of psychological distress. Zebb, B.J., Moore, M.C., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, College of Medicine at Peoria, University of Illinois, 5407 N University St, Suite C, Peoria, IL. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 2003;17(1):115-30.Religious belief as compensatory control. Kay A.C., Gaucher D., McGregor I., et. al. University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, Personality and Social Psychol Review. 2010 Feb;14(1):37-48. Epub 2009 Dec 29.Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. Whitson, J.A., Galinsky, A.D., Department of Management, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX. Science 2008 Oct 3;322(5898):115-7.. Superstition may also have a lot to do with religion, since moderately religious people of all faiths tend to believe in superstitions and the paranormal more than others. That’s possibly because this group is open to the concept of the unknown, but willing to believe in mysterious experiences that their specific religion doesn’t explainWhat does a “superstitious” person believe? Impressions of participants. Rudski, J., Department of Psychology, Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA. Journal of General Psychology 2003 Oct;130(4):431-45.. But that figure floating through the kitchen might be more than the ghost of Christmas Past.

Step on a Crack – Your Action Plan

For some people, the magic of that lucky rabbit’s foot isn’t just in their heads. One study found the belief in a lucky ball, or another object, boosted people’s confidence levels and enhanced their performance on everything from sports games to memory tasksKeep your fingers crossed!: how superstition improves performance. Damisch, L., Stoberoc, B., Mussweiler, T., et al. Department Psychologie, Universität zu Köln, Richard-Strauss-Strasse 2, 50931 Köln, Germany. Psychological Science 2010 Jul;21(7):1014-20. Epub 2010 May 28.. Magical beliefs may also be a useful coping strategy: In another study, women who recited psalms during periods of conflict experienced less anxiety than women who didn’t.

And while carrying a lucky charm or whispering a prayer is unlikely to hurt anyone, superstitious beliefs can get out of hand. Putting yourself in danger for superstition reasons may be unhealthful and unsafe. (Think wearing the same lucky blue underwear for a week straight — gross!) One study even found highly superstitious taxi drivers were more likely to get into car accidents than others, though it’s not clear that superstitious thinking actually caused any risky behaviorSuperstition, risk-tasking and risk perception of accidents among South African taxi drivers. Peltzer, K., Renner, W. Health Behavior Research Unit, University of the North, Sovenga, South Africa. Accident; analysis and prevention 2003;35(4):619-23.. Some researchers think superstition can be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which involves unwanted, repeated thoughts and behaviorsThe presence of magical thinking in obsessive compulsive disorder. Einstein, D.A., Menzies, R.G., School of Behavioural and Community Health Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia. Behaviour Research Therapy 2004 May;42(5):539-49.Compulsivity and superstitiousness. Frost, R.O., Krause, M.S., McMahon M.J., et. al., Department of Psychology, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Behaviour Research Therapy 1993 May;31(4):423-5.. If superstitious beliefs are interfering with your relationships and daily life, it might be time to speak to a mental health professional. Otherwise let’s stick to wearing those lucky socks and throwing salt over our left shoulders – just watch out for those sitting behind you!

  • Superstitions are irrational beliefs in supernatural influences.
  • Half of Americans say they’re superstitious.
  • Superstitious behavior can help us feel more confident and more in control over our lives.
  • Moderately religious people tend to be the most superstitious.
  • It’s a problem when superstitious behavior interferes with daily life.
What are the weirdest superstitions you’ve heard of? Share ’em in the comments below!