Superstitions – passed down through generations, or developed spontaneously on certain online forums – gobble up thousands of productive hours yearly. But it would be wrong to say that all that time spent avoiding ladders or cracks in the pavement is wasted. For one thing, we’d probably just be spending that time on some equally useless activity, like working. For another, superstitions are essential binding agents between people, generations, and some vague notion of the Past, from which most of these superstitions sprang, and where, presumably, they made somewhat more sense. To learn more about which superstitions have some basis in fact, for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts in the field.
Reader, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University
and Ken Drinkwater
Senior Lecturer, Cognitive and Parapsychology, Manchester Metropolitan University
Finding the real basis of superstitions is incredibly difficult because the majority date back many centuries. This means that their original meaning is a source of much debate and conjecture. Furthermore, in some instances the terms of reference/context change over time. For example, many scholars contend that bad luck associated with walking under ladders dates back to Egyptian times. This derives from the fact that a ladder resting against a wall creates the shape of triangle. The triangle was an important symbol in ancient Egyptian culture. One possible association being with the divine trinity. This connection supposes that breaking the triangle represents desecration of the gods.
Bad luck and ladders dates back also to the death of Christ. Christians reference the fact that a ladder rested against the crucifix. Accordingly, ladders leaning on a flat surface symbolise betrayal and death. A more recent connection between ladders and misfortune links to the observation that criminals in England during the 17th century walked under a ladder on their way to the gallows to meet the hangman.
At an adaptive level, belief in good luck can increase confidence and facilitate success. The effect arises because positive superstitions provide psychological reassurance, reducing anxiety, and creating a sense of illusory control. In extreme forms, however, superstitions can become self-reinforcing to the extent that the failure to perform a ritual can actually produce anxiety. This can occur even when an individual is aware that the outcome is dependent on skill/ability rather than supernatural forces. A classic illustration of the relationship between luck and ability is the quotation often misattributed to famous golfers, “the harder you work (practice) the luckier you get”.
Another potential positive consequence of superstitions is that they can encourage precautionary checking, which potentially reduces errors and mistakes. Although, if this concern becomes excessive, it can generate anxiety and possibly lead to distraction or avoidance behaviour. Similarly, belief in bad luck can lead to lack of success in the form of negative self- fulfilling prophecy. When individuals incorrectly believe that failure is preordained and inevitable.
“At an adaptive level, belief in good luck can increase confidence and facilitate success. The effect arises because positive superstitions provide psychological reassurance, reducing anxiety, and creating a sense of illusory control. In extreme forms, however, superstitions can become self-reinforcing to the extent that the failure to perform a ritual can actually produce anxiety.”
Distinguished Professor, Behavioural Addiction, Nottingham Trent University
My background is in the gambling studies field, so as far as I am concerned, no superstitions are based on facts but are based on what I would call ‘illusory correlations’ (e.g., noticing that the last three winning visits to the casino were all when you wore a particular item of clothing or it was on a particular day of the week). While the observation may be fact-based (i.e., that you did indeed wear a particular piece of clothing), the relationship is spurious.
The fallibility of human reason is the greatest single source of superstitious belief. Superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers, and/or sayings. A working definition within our Western society could be a belief that a given action can bring good luck or bad luck when there are no rational or generally acceptable grounds for such a belief. In short, the fundamental feature underlying superstitions is that they have no rational underpinnings.
There is also a stereotypical view that there are certain groups within society who tend to hold more superstitious beliefs than what may be considered the norm. These include those involved with sport, the acting profession, miners, fishermen, and gamblers – many of whom will have superstitions based on things that have personally happened to them or to those they know well. Again, these may well be fact-based but the associations they have experienced will again be illusory and spurious. Most individuals are basically rational and do not really believe in the effects of superstition. However, in times of uncertainty, stress, or perceived helplessness, they may seek to regain personal control over events by means of superstitious belief.
One explanation for how we learn these superstitious beliefs has been suggested by the psychologist B.F. Skinner and his research with pigeons. While waiting to be fed, Skinner’s pigeons adopted some peculiar behaviours. The birds appeared to see a causal relationship between receiving the food and their own preceding behaviour. However, it was merely coincidental conditioning. There are many analogies in the human world – particularly among gamblers. For instance, if a gambler blows on the dice during a game of craps and subsequently wins, the superstitious belief is reinforced through the reward of winning. Another explanation is that as children we are socialised into believing in magic and superstitious beliefs. Although many of these beliefs dissipate over time, children also learn by watching and modelling their behaviour on that of others. Therefore, if their parents or peers touch wood, carry lucky charms, and do not walk under ladders, then children are more likely to imitate that behaviour, and some of these beliefs may be carried forward to later life.
“If a gambler blows on the dice during a game of craps and subsequently wins, the superstitious belief is reinforced through the reward of winning.”
Associate Professor, Anthropology, University at Buffalo
Why do we avoid walking under ladders? There’s a really far-out theory that suggests that a ladder leaning against a wall makes a three-sided figure, and walking through it is a violation of the trinity. But to me, the best explanation is: something could fall on you. As with some food taboos, and some rituals regarding faecal matter or the preparation of the dead, these are practical avoidances that have taken on the form of a magical or habitual taboo.
But there are other meanings of the word ‘fact.’ For millions of people, it is a ‘fact’ that there are forces in the world, mystical forces, that operate between things, and that people can activate these forces in ways that can cause good or harm.
The forces that I’m talking about are based on fundamental principles which seem now to be absolutely universal in human thinking. The first has to do with similarities: the idea that things that resemble other things have a causal relationship. Religious rituals that repeated the event that they are commemorating have this element in them. The superstition about the number 13 – especially Friday the 13th – derives from the story of the last supper of Jesus: it was a Thursday night, and there were 13 people at that table. Later that night was the arrest, and the next day was the crucifixion. The idea is that doing something that has brought about such a tragic result in the past can bring on a tragic result today.
The second principle is contact: the idea that things that have been in actual physical contact with other things retain that contact after they are separated. The contact can be direct/physical or it can be temporal/spatial – think: ‘I was in that arena when [American baseball player] Barry Bonds hit his 800th home run.’ That ball that Barry Bonds hit sold for over $800,000, because the principle of contact, and by his next major milestone the ball was selling for less, because his reputation had been tainted by a drug scandal.
You avoid doing things because of either of these two principles. You avoid stepping on a crack, because a crack represents damage, and coming into contact with it can spread that damage; you avoid opening an umbrella in the house, because an umbrella is designed to be opened outside, in a storm, and storms represent danger. You can take a whole lot of other superstitions and apply the same explanation to them.
“You avoid doing things because of either of these two principles. You avoid stepping on a crack, because a crack represents damage, and coming into contact with it can spread that damage; you avoid opening an umbrella in the house, because an umbrella is designed to be opened outside, in a storm, and storms represent danger.”
Professor of English and Director of Folklore and Public Culture at the University of Oregon
I’d say that in one way, all superstitions have a basis in reality. Superstitions are just a way of trying to control something that seems out of control – they’re a signal that shows what we worry about. For instance, out here in Oregon (and maybe where you are too?), lots of people have a superstition where they touch the ceiling of their car when they go through an intersection or a yellow light. (Hopefully the passengers are doing this, not the driver. Hopefully!) It’s realistic to think that going through an intersection, especially on a yellow light, is riskier than regular driving. So it’s a superstition that shows you where we think the danger is.
But you’re probably asking: what are the superstitions where the action actually works? One that works to some extent is salt. There are a lot of salt superstitions. Maybe the most familiar one is that if you spill salt, you have to throw some over your shoulder. Salt has been felt to be lucky and health-preserving for millennia. Sometimes people give salt on special occasions as a good-luck token. There used to be a tradition that people attending a christening would give a gift of salt to ensure the baby’s health. And salt is health-giving, because it preserves food and keeps it from spoiling. That’s why butter has always been salted, and why bacon and ham are so salty. So that superstition is true – salt keeps you from harm. Throwing it over your shoulder – not so much. But preserving food with it – no wonder we value it so highly.
Another one that has some validity is the extra excitement that comes with the full moon. People often think that the full moon is when all kinds of mischief occurs. And it used to be true! That’s because, before electricity, people could stay up late and party only on nights with a full moon – because then they could see to find their way home. The full moon is the time for carousing. You even find it in Jane Austen – in Sense and Sensibility, somebody tries to get a party going, but it’s the full moon and so everyone already has lots of parties to go to. We’ve forgotten how impossible it is to get home when it’s pitch dark with no artificial light, so we forget why people used to act like literal “lunatics” at the full moon.
“Salt is health-giving, because it preserves food and keeps it from spoiling... So that superstition is true – salt keeps you from harm. Throwing it over your shoulder – not so much.”
Associate Professor of English and Director of the Folklore Program at Utah State University
From a folklorist’s perspective most, if not all, superstitions are rational. They just tend to follow their own logic and rationality, which often is not the logic of science. For example, many superstitions follow the logic of contagious magic, which states that things that come into contact with each other influence each other. This is the logic underlying the idea, for example, that one can influence an individual if one obtains his/her fingernails or hair. It may be incorrect, but it has its own logic.
In the past, all non-scientific reasoning was considered illogical or irrational, including traditional superstitions. Folklorists don’t use the term “superstition” anymore exactly because the term is pejorative and indicates a stance of irrationality. We prefer the term “folk belief,” which is more neutral.
“From a folklorist’s perspective most, if not all, superstitions are rational. They just tend to follow their own logic and rationality, which often is not the logic of science.”
Featured image: Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)