"Very superstitious, writing's on the wall. Very superstitious, ladder's 'bout to fall." I hope that you read that in the melody of the great Stevie Wonder like I wrote it in. Because damn, what a funky tune. The beloved Oxford Dic(tionary) asserts that superstitions are "excessively credulous beliefs in and reverence for the supernatural." Or another definition of superstitions are "widely held but irrational beliefs in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief."
So, they are deemed irrational, but why do we all participate in the superstitious realm? Think about whether you have done any of the following; touched wood to claim immunity from your words, attempted to not step on a crack in the pavement, found a coin and assumed good luck, opened an umbrella inside and assumed bad luck, or simply crossed your fingers? Superstitions are extremely common cultural phenomenons that have spawned from a multitude of locations. In this blog post, I am delving into the superstitious realm to tell you about the most interesting origin stories of superstitions, the psychology of superstitions, and find out WHY we like them so damn much. With that dear readers, let's investigate.
The origin of the word 'superstition' is fascinating. The word as we know it today is a Middle English word, a form of the English language spoken after Norman conquest in 1066. However, the word is actually an Old French (spoken in Northern France from the 8th to 14th century) word. It is made up of the Latin components of 'super' meaning 'over' and 'stare' meaning 'to stand', which creates 'superstitio.' This suggests that superstitions are things that stand over you. Or rather superstitions are convictions that linger over you constantly.
Let's delve into the reasoning and origins behind some of society's favourite superstitions, vamos! The first superstition that I wanted to dive into was of the infamous date; Friday the 13th. We know that the date is supposed to arrive with all the bad luck in the world. People take desperate measures to evade the number 13. 80% of high-rise buildings omit labelling their 13th level with the dreaded number and airlines often don't have a 13th gate or aisle. Why is that? A predominant theory is that the origin of this superstition was spawned from the 13th guest at the Last Supper being Judas Iscariot and that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Historian Donald Dossey thought that the unlucky nature of the number alternatively arose from a Norse myth. 12 Norse gods were having a dinner party in Valhalla. The trickster god, Loki, arrived uninvited as the thirteenth guest. He arranged for Höor to shoot Balder with a mistletoe-tipped arrow. It makes me wonder why Western superstitions have refrained from calling mistletoe unlucky. Rather, at Christmas time, kissing under the mistletoe is a contrary lucky act. Alas, Friday the 13th still pertains to be avoided at all costs, especially after the 1980 horror movie that really amplified the horrific nature of the date.
How about black cats? Unfortunately, for kitty lovers, the presence of a black cat in the Middle Ages meant nothing but bad luck. This was because it was thought that witches kept black cats as company. And of course, witches were not particularly adored by general public, rather they were utterly feared. The sight of a black cat by Norman and Germanic beliefs meant that death would supposedly occur soon to that individual. Some people even believed that these black kitties turned into witches or demons after seven years, eek! However, in Germany some people believe that the crossing of a black cat from right to left, is a bad omen, but the opposite, from left to right, is a good omen. People really be getting specific with their black kitty sightings. Fun fact, powerful leaders like Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte were both prepared to conquer nations, yet the sight of a black cat terrified both leaders. Why so superstitious?
"Achoo!" "Bless you!" Why is it quintessential to bless someone after they sneeze? It may simply be good manners to some, but to others, its superstitious essence is at an all time high. There are a multitude of potential origins and beliefs behind this superstition, let's investigate. In 6th century Europe, people were in fact congratulated after sneezing. People believed that the sneezer was actually casting away evil spirits. Romans used to think that a strong sneeze realised one's soul into the world and that a "bless you" would keep it safely at home. A darker nature behind the superstition appeared when the Black Plague hit Europe in 1665. The Pope actually forced everyone to be blessed when they sneezed. This was because he believed that a sneeze was a sign that the person was going to die. Bit grim.
That's just the start of the superstitions that are commonly present in our societies. I haven't even talked about how a broken mirror supposedly symbolises seven years of bad luck because seven years is the time it takes to replace all cells in one's body. Or that opening an umbrella inside means bad luck because it offends the sun god while out of the sun's rays. In Taiwan, shoppers tend to pay more money for less items when the number of items are of a "luckier" number. Why on earth are superstitions on earth and what is the psychology behind them?
Superstitions are not necessarily of the rational realm. We know that they're for the most part irrational. But why do we continuously allow superstitions to govern our thoughts and decision making? Why do we perpetually believe the unbelievable? Jane Risen, a member of the American Psychological Society, uses the dual process model to explain human cognition's preference for superstitions. Risen and other authors explain that humans have the capacity to think both "fast" and "slow." "Fast" thinking is intuitive and snappy, while the latter is rational and requires more cognitive brain power. The main responsibility for "slow" thinking is overriding "fast" thinking when it finds errors. You can think of this like your brain is running a marathon when it is "slow" thinking and sitting on a couch watching TV when it is "fast" thinking.
Risen explains that this model is an established one, yet "in the case of superstitions, it should undergo refinements." This is because in the case of error detection, it does not necessarily account for error correction. In other words, people can know that something is wrong, but still act on it. Although all of this might be the case, superstitions are not necessarily a cognitive fault, they can also hold cognitive benefits.
The extensive survival of superstitions may be attributed to the fact that they relieve anxiety. Superstitions have a soothing aspect to them, they relieve people's queries about the unknown. As well, they give people a sense of control in their lives. If someone can do something to increase one's luck before something uncertain, that will of course be done if you believe in it enough. This also speaks to the fact that superstitions are especially prevalent under conditions of uncertainty, fear, and threat.
Stuart Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, explains the evidence behind why superstitions may objectively improve performance. "There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit than can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition." A study that examined performance in "golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games," found that making gestures, like crossing fingers, actually boosted participants' performance. That just goes to show how powerful your mind is. You can literally think something into existence, if it occurs that is. And if it occurs, confirmation bias is your best friend.
The perpetual use of superstitions is inevitable after one successful experience. "People don't want to tempt fate by not employing it" Vyse explains. Let's use the "touch wood" superstition to illustrate this. For example, one could announce how grateful they are for the success that they are currently having at their job. Subsequently, that individual finds a wooden object and touches it to secure that future luck that they are getting at their job continues. Obviously, the price that one is paying for the superstition to come to life is small. Touching a piece of wood costs no money and takes little effort, so why wouldn't you do it? The benefits greatly outweigh the disadvantages. This is a prominent reason as to why superstitions carry on being apparent in many cultures; the benefits simply outweigh the costs of the superstition.
Whether it be crossing fingers, black cats, or broken mirrors, most people indulge in superstitious ways one way or another. Superstitions are powerful mind tricks that promote both good or bad omens. Their cognitive capabilities have been absolutely absorbed by the human brain. It is important to recognise the superstitions that you are indebted to and that you allow your "slow" thinking process to prevail when need be. Trust your intuition, but maybe not all the time when it comes to superstitions...
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