Mental Health

Why Are Superstitious Beliefs So Common?

Lucky charms, four-leaf clovers, black cats, broken mirrors, Friday the 13th, walking under ladders, crossing fingers — these are just a few of the popular things people associate with superstitious beliefs. Of course, some people prefer to customize objects and rituals, adding a personal touch.

For example, tennis player Rafael Nadal is known to stick to a list of habits that include a cold shower 45 minutes before every match, making sure his drinking bottles labels face his end of the court and toweling down after every point.

While some would label this as quirky, it is not uncommon for people to find comfort in such beliefs that have no scientific basis. From the perspective of psychology, rituals that reduce anxiety are among the possible symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Yet, superstitions are not limited to people with OCD and other mental deficits, as noted by Jane Risen, a psychologist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults have superstitions that are not rational," she wrote.

Superstitions could be conditioned from childhood, passed on by family members who consider them a part of their religion or culture. This has been observed universally in both eastern and western countries.

But a person could also develop a belief themselves if they perceive a connection between two non-related events. If you happen to ace a math test while wearing a bracelet, you may wonder if you should wear the same bracelet for your next math test as it could "bring" good luck.

Tom Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, noted the "arbitrary nature" of such decisions.

"It has no rational bearing. Yet somehow you feel like you’re tempting fate, and the outcome, a bad outcome, that could befall you is going to be worse because you deliberately did something that people say you shouldn’t do."

Essentially, your mind likes having a sense of control in the midst of our unpredictable lives. So one can say recreating elements of a scenario where you were successful (whether it's acing a math test or winning the Wimbledon championship) provides a sense of control over the outcome, even if illusionary and irrational.

But what is not illusionary is the relaxing effect it could have on our mental state. Psychologists pointed out skipping a ritual might increase anxiety, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by distracting the person and reducing their confidence during an important event.

This was also why we tend to press the elevator button repeatedly despite knowing it does not actually speed up the elevator. The main purpose it serves is to soothe the feeling of impatience and restlessness.