In a world of endless uncertainty, superstitions can play a pretty big role. Superstitions can include anything from the belief in the power of beginner’s luck to skipping over cracks in the pavement, just in case. Working professionals in all fields, from pilots to athletes, to doctors all, have their own beliefs and rituals. But there's a lot more to superstitions than a few extra steps around a ladder or steering clear of black cats. In fact, there are a few very interesting psychological processes that make us superstitious or are influenced by superstitions. Here are 5 ways in which our behavior can be affected by superstitious beliefs.
1. A Dual-Process of Thinking
The dual processing model is an established concept that essentially says that human beings have two streams of thought, one being fast and instinctive and the other being slower and more rational. This psychological model was used to explain why we believe in superstitions.
According to Dr. Jane Risen, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth, when acting on a superstitious belief, a person may detect the error in their belief system, but choose to leave it uncorrected, a process that she referred to as “acquiescence”. In this way, superstitions can be a double-edged sword, as acquiescence can be beneficial or can impair your functionality.
In this way, superstitions can be considered a processing error, a glitch in our cognition.
2. Improved Performance
According to Dr. Stuart Vyse, a former professor of psychology at Connecticut College, there are solid links between luck enhancing positive superstitions and an improvement in performance.
A study published in the APS Journal on Psychological Science in 2010 showed through a series of 4 experiments that luck-related activities, such as the use of the expression “break-a-leg”, finger crossing, and even the use of lucky objects produced changes in the way each individual perceived their own ability to perform, and self-efficacy.
The researchers observed a clear improvement in performance in physical activities like golfing, as well as activities that flexed the mind like memory tests and anagram puzzles.
3. Anxiety Relief
A major portion of our anxiety comes from the knowledge that most situations in life may be beyond our control. Anxiety is an especially prevalent ailment for people suffering from lack of confidence, low self-esteem and persistent fear of uncertainty.
A study in the International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences sourced the roots of numerous superstitions to the early days of our species and the practices of our ancestors, who were at the mercy of predators and many forces of the world that could neither be understood nor controlled.
Over time, superstitions have evolved to provide comfort in the face of unknowable odds, which has had a major role in reducing anxiety. However, they may also be imbibing us with a false sense of control over the myriad of unpredictable circumstances. Nonetheless, superstitions still play an incredibly reassuring role in our everyday life.
4. The Cost of Superstition
Believe it or not, we all pay a price for performing a superstitious ritual or abiding by a particular superstition. This refers to both monetary expenses, as well as the cost of “tempting fate” by not abiding by a superstition. Dr. Stuart Vyse discussed the example of a chain letter shared by journalists in the US.
He noted that despite many of the journalists knowing that the letter wasn’t real, many shared the letter regardless, because the effort it took to send the letter bore a lesser cost than the potential outcomes of not passing on the chain letter, which could result in misfortunes like loss of jobs, fortunes and even lives.
On the monetary side, we might also opt for superstitions that provide us with a sense of security at a low price, like knocking on wood or throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder if you spill any.
5. Obsessive-Compulsive Superstitions
A lot of superstitious behavior is almost instinctive. Superstitions can be passed down generation after generation from your ancestors or just from your parents, so in a way, these beliefs just become a habit. While these habits are harmless most of the time, they can develop into more serious and almost uncontrollably repetitive patterns.
The clear connection between Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and superstitions has not been fully established, but superstitious behavior has been noted as a recognized compulsive behavior. However, there are many traits that overlap between superstitious people and persons suffering from OCD. While it isn’t anything to worry about in particular, it’s always good to manage these behavioral tendencies.