Why People Believe in Superstitions

Many superstitions originated at a time when little was known about how the physical world functions.  They were an early attempt at making sense of the world through legends and anecdotal tales of cause and effect. In today's more scientific world, superstitions persist for the same basic reason they began: A belief in superstitions gives people an illusion of control in an uncertain world.

A superstition is a belief that is not based on logic or reason. Superstitions often promise to protect someone from harm or in some way affect the future. For example, opening an umbrella in a house is said to lead to bad luck, finding a four leaf clover would bring good luck, and wearing a special gemstone or crystal would ward off evil. These superstitions have no logical basis, yet they are still followed by millions.

People believe in superstitions because they want to believe in them. It's easy enough for believers to find coincidental connections and label them as proof, or to simply say that their superstitious beliefs defy explanation. Interestingly, a belief in superstitions can actually appear to affect a person's "luck," though what it really affects is a person's outlook.

The human mind is powerful, and events that are based on a person's performance can be influenced by that person's outlook or beliefs. This is commonly known as a placebo effect.

When a superstitious person breaks a mirror (which is supposed to bring seven years of bad luck) he may actually perform poorly on a test, forget his lines during a play, or miss an easy layup during a basketball game. Conversely, carrying a rabbit's foot may give the same person the confidence to do well in all of those areas (if he actually has the necessary skills).

This is why superstitions are so prevalent among athletes, actors, and students. Some athletes may decide that they have to perform a certain ritual, like turning in three circles before leaving the locker room or wearing a certain pair of lucky socks. Thespians often do not wish each other good luck before a play, as that is supposed to have the opposite effect. Instead, they tell each other to "break a leg," and they never say the name of the Scottish Play unless they are on stage performing it.

Superstitions have arisen in nearly every culture, yet some superstitions have opposite meanings in different countries. In the United States, both black cats and the number 13 are unlucky. Yet black cats are lucky in Britain and the number 13 is lucky in Italy. Does a black cat's luck change when it makes a trip across the pond? And what happens if a black cat crosses in front of both a Brit and American who are walking on the same street?

Though superstitions have some interesting background stories and can have a placebo affect on those who believe in them, they all seem to come back to a matter of control. People want to have control over the events in their lives. They will believe in many strange ideas to gain even an illusory sense of control. Yet, if control is so important, why do some people seem to prefer superstitious beliefs over scientific fact?

At the most basic level, some people associate the term "belief" with positive concepts like emotional sensitivity, artistry, inspiration, magic or faith, but attach negative connotations to "facts," such as being dry, boring or unimaginative. Beliefs are uplifting; facts are grounding. That alone can be enough to make some people shy from staid facts and embrace more magical beliefs.

Superstitious beliefs may also be seen as more accessible than scientific facts. To be confirmed, scientific facts must be objective, verified observations. They must stand up to investigation with consistent results. Superstitions, on the other hand, defy logic and simply require belief. People can "just know" they are "true," instead of being bothered with proving them to others.

Superstitious people often say, "I don't know how it works, it just does." And, when it comes to performance, maybe superstitions do work--in a way. A basketball player might score more points when wearing his lucky socks, but give those same socks to a kid off the street who doesn't have the baller's skills or dedicated training regime, and he'd still be riding the bench. 


  1. But what if those socks really are magical?

  2. Then you could sell them for a small fortune and we could both retire.

  3. Very well written. It is a joy to read someone's words when they flow as yours. I'm sure we have all had the occasion to read paragraphs that beg for a second reading for clarity sake.
    Your analogies connect the concept to everyday life making it easier to understand. Great job.

    BTW, I have a lucky fishing lure which, when all others fail, will produce. ;)

  4. You do not have a grasp of what superstitions are. They have little to do with walking under ladders or black cats, which make for comic relief. Superstition is very real and it is virtually impossible to find someone who lives free of superstition, or a belief in magic. Superstition works like this. If someone uses a 'word' and it affects me, i am enabling the person speaking to take control of my psychology, which is exactly how magic and superstitions work. In this case it's easy for me pull out rationality and claim you are "hurting my feelings" but in reality i am being superstitious because a 'word' cannot and never will be able to hurt me. Only a very small-minded superstitious person believes 'words' can hurt. Superstitious people are easy to spot. They believe that inanimate objects have life: "guns kill" "drugs kill" etc. Small minded superstitious people whip out their rationality again hoping to hide their superstition behind feelings. Anyone making a statement that cannot be proven, for example, ‘there is, or there isn't a God’, is of course superstitious. As an atheist, you would be better served by climbing out from behind the veil of your own superstitions. An atheist is simply one side of a two faced coin whose meaning cannot be proven, and you are both, not only superstitious, but extremely dangerous to yourselves and society. Turn to empiricism and be free.

  5. Joe, If you read my other posts discussing atheism (or About This Site and Myths About Atheism at the top of every page) you will see that, as an atheist, I do not say that "there isn't a god." In fact, I frequently explain the difference between "knowing" and "believing," and say that both atheism and theism reside in the realm of "believing", not in "knowing," because there is no way to prove or disprove a being who is said to exist outside of our human understanding. (i.e. Bertrand Russell's teapot)

    I agree that empirical data is the only way to truly "know" anything. However, I disagree with your comment on a few points.

    First, to have meaningful discussions, people must agree on the definitions of words. While the term "superstition" could be used to describe any belief, the common cultural usage of the word does refer to more particular beliefs and behaviors. This article clearly focuses on the more specific usage of the word, while more subtly hinting at the wider definition. Perhaps you are not grasping the meaning behind this post.

    Second, it is short-sighted to say that only empirical data is important. Every scientific discovery began with a hypothesis, which was a belief (or what you might call a superstition?). Please see my post on Scientific Imagination, which includes Richard Feynman's wonderful explanation of the important relationship between hypothesis (guessing) and science (experimentation).

    Third, and finally, I do not agree with your explanation of feelings being superstitions. Feelings are subjective, but they are observable and they do have meaning. Words can, and do, hurt people. It has been proved through observation and experimentation that words and ideas can cause physical symptoms, including pain.

    There's some truth to the fact that the ability of other people's words to hurt you does rely on the meaning you attach to them yourself. However, it's unrealistic to say that a healthy, balanced person would be able to consistently disregard the intent of hurtful words.

    In fact, never being hurt by words, would greatly limit a person's decision making abilities and lower their chances of survival. Our emotional responses work with our cognitive abilities to create a strong basis for good decisions. Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide, takes a fascinating look at the neuroscience behind our emotional and logical thinking.

    As a final thought, your last comment, "Turn to empiricism and be free." is actually quite in line with the ideas of critical thinking that I promote on this site.

    Thanks for commenting.

  6. Susan, good morning. Allow me to try again. But it will come in two parts.
    i surmise that by now you have come to realize that no matter how eloquent, well-written, or true your words may be, they will be misunderstood by persons who do not possess a psychology close enough to your own. This is why people choose one philosopher over another. It has nothing to do with the words (signs). And you may find yourself re-writing the same thing again and again, only in different ways, to reach those people. And so i try.
    Feeling, not to be confused with sensation, is the psychological function i use to assign ‘value’. My ability to assign value is dependent on how conscious i am of my self, and its relationship to all else. To clear the air: for me, emotion is not simply an ‘intense feeling’ but rather, an emotion drives me out of my self, i am no longer my self, and though i may rue what i say and do during an emotional upheaval, yes it may also provide a sudden insight into something helpful. This is not my point.
    My point is that to teach children any ‘word’ can harm them is simply plain voodoo. That is how voodoo works, and why weaker minds are susceptible to voodoo; because they believe ‘words’ are magical. This leaves people psychologically unhealthy, unable to deal with themselves, with others, with reality, and worse still, prone to mass hysteria, which is the last thing anyone needs during a crisis. More to the point, it is much better to help our children develop consciousness, a consciousness with a wide expanse and distant horizon, rather than to shrink back to hide in fear. Though my words are not confusing enough, allow me to ramble on
    i happened across your site while surfing and couldn’t help adding my two cents.
    Right you are about meaningful discussion. It is most important to at least understand what the other person means by their words, because then i can substitute them with mine. It’s easy to understand why words need to be written and rewritten before they are understood.
    Superstition is very real and can be investigated empirically. Getting to its roots is what’s important. It’s not that “only empirical data is important” it’s, all data should be approached empirically.
    i suggest every scientific discovery begins as a ‘symbol’ produced by intuition (also active imagination), which are functions of human psychology. These are not superstitions. When activated these functions produce symbols perceived to have deeper meanings. From this symbol a perceptive individual gets an ‘inkling’ or ‘notion’, and soon produces an ‘idea’. The person may then, using the psychological function of intellect and power of reason, work their idea into a ‘hypothesis’ to be tested empirically. It may one day become a law, but even then it may not work outside its realm, just as Newton’s laws on classical physics do not work in the quantum realm.
    Feeling is not a superstition; it too is a psychological function of human psychology. Feeling is both subjective and collective, healthy, and unhealthy. It has been proven words can and do harm individuals both psychologically and in turn physically, but we must never blame the ‘word’. It makes more sense to realize the problem is with the person who is affected. To give any word so much value it becomes magical is an act of superstition, and is at the very root of voodoo. Let’s distinguish between feeling and emotion, because here is where ‘magical words’ take people away. Emotional damage is dependent on how psychologically well-balanced i am, or not. It depends on how well i deal with a situation, and not on the situation itself. Parents teach their children to fear words and life, which cause the children to shrink back from words and life, which encourages more fear of words and life, and more shrinking back, etc. etc. in what becomes a self-perpetuating hell. Fight or flight is natural, but fear and loathing are learned and unnatural.

  7. Susan, Let me know if i am writting too much.
    For instance, the difference is this: You are standing on a mountain with your child, and you find your child standing on the very edge looking down. You have a choice, should you rush over to the child screaming and yelling in fear, spreading and breeding fear, helping them learn to fear standing on the edge of a mountain? Or, do you walk up beside your child and discuss calmly and rationally the realities of what they are doing? Both ways pull the child back from the edge of the cliff, but the first way teaches fear, the other reason. The first way is child abuse, the second way child development. It is the same when dealing with words.
    It is realistic to say as a healthy, psychologically well-balanced person, i can always and consistently regard words without ever allowing my feelings to cloud my thinking. i learned as a child that anger is not only a waste of energy, anger harms me; and that an angry person is out of control, and can be controlled easily. An angry person is a dead person, or worse still those around them are. This is not to suggest i do not understand what the speaker of the so-called ‘hurtful’ word ‘means’, but rather, i understand the speaker of such a ‘word’ is psychologically unbalanced, in need of help, and i do not place enough ‘value’ on their words to make them important. This is not to say i will not avoid some people as i would any other hazard, but i will never allow them to control my psychology. Any person who believes they can with words turn me into something i am not is deserving of my pity, not my fear. Why allow my child to become upset because some smaller minded child called my child an “idiot”? If i have raised my child to be healthy, she will either ignore or laugh at the person using so-called hurtful words, but she will never allow the ‘word’ to affect her. My child will experience her feelings, but never fear or be upset by them.
    i know cognitive psychiatrists and they provide wonderful results within their realm, which means helping persons work through injuries where strong emotional upheavals aid with the re-development of logical thought. But we are not speaking here about persons suffering from head injuries. In reality, if i allow my feeling to well-up into a full blown emotion, i am then beside myself, i am no longer ‘me’, and i am in danger, as are those around me. Imagine how emotion affects your child. People in this ‘state’ were at one time considered possessed. This is where words take a weak mind, and it is never ever healthy.
    i realize human consciousness is very feeble and easily overwhelmed by the unconscious during emotional upheaval, but consciousness is my only defense in any situation, with everything else following. We must help our children develop consciousness with well-balanced psychologies, and this means to stop teaching the acceptance of superstition. For instance, it is fine to say the ‘object’ is colored blue, but it is superstitious to ‘‘believe’’ the ‘object’ has color. The color is in my mind, not in the object. It is okay to say ‘i learned from a book’ but superstitious to ‘believe’ i can learn anything from a book, because learning always has and always will take place in my mind. It’s okay to say ‘i see an object’ but superstitious to ‘believe’ i ‘see’ an object, when in reality what i ‘see’ is the image i form of the object in my head. Though seemingly petty, understanding this is absolutely necessary to clear thinking. Materialists and spiritualists are both suppersitious. No materialist can tell us what ‘matter’ is in and of itself, just as no spiritualist can tell is what ‘spirit’ is in and of itself, and yet both fear and deny the other, where only an empiricist dares tread.
    Sorry to ramble on but i am witnessing our children being turned into frightened zombies lapsing into emotional distress, crying and screaming with every little incident, and this is unhealthy for them and the collective.

  8. Susan, i posted twice, but see only one. i wouldn't want you to read only half of my words. What did i do wrong?

  9. Joe, Something in your comment caused it to be caught in the automatic spam filter. (I don't know what; maybe it was due to the length.) I let the comment through, so it is now showing above.

    You have an interesting way of looking at things, and clearly you have a lot to share on the matter. However, it seems like your comments are only very loosely related to this article.

    At the heart of it, you are arguing against superstitions and magical thinking. That is the implied message behind this article as well. As an empiricist, you take the idea further in your own direction. As a rationalist, I can appreciate what you are saying, but look at the subject a little differently.

    Perhaps you should start your own blog where you can discuss your views on empiricism. It's an interesting philosophy and I'm sure you can find others online who wish to discuss it with you.

    (Let me know if you do start a blog, so I can check it out.)

    Have a great day.

  10. I certainly *know* there is not a God, because 'God' is a nonsense word. I also know there are no squared circles, or 'flambarks', etc. Epistemic agnosticism is invalid, even though it isn't an alternative to atheism.

    However, explain to me why so many Humanist 'skeptics' believe in clearly mystical nonsense like human equality. That's as superstitious garbage as I ever heard of.

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