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Fw: Psychology of Superstition:Does magical thinking overtake yoursenses?

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  • eric
    I thought the following article was interesting: http://content.health.msn.com/content/article/94/103067.htm?printing=true THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUPERSTITION: IS
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 7, 2004
      I thought the following article was interesting:


      By Sarah Albert,
      Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD
      WebMD Feature

      If you're like most people, you occasionally participate in
      superstitious thinking or behavior often without even realizing you're
      doing it. Just think: When was the last time you knocked on wood, walked
      within the lines, avoided a black cat, or read your daily horoscope?

      These are all examples of superstitions or what Stuart Vyse, PhD, and
      the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, calls
      magical thinking.
      More than half of Americans admitted to being at least a little
      superstitious, according to a recent Gallup poll.

      Additionally, beliefs in witches, ghosts and haunted houses -- all
      popular Halloween symbols -- have increased over the past decade. But
      just what is the psychology behind our magical thinking, and is it
      hurting or helping us? When does superstitious thinking go too far? Was
      Stevie Wonder right: When you believe in things that you don't
      understand, do you suffer?

      In our quest to understand superstitions, let's start by defining them.
      After all, not all rituals or beliefs are superstitions. "The dividing
      line is whether you give some kind of magical significance to the
      ritual," Vyse tells WebMD.

      For example, if an athlete develops a ritual before a game, something
      Vyse says many coaches encourage, it may help to calm and focus him or
      her like repeating a mantra. "That's not superstitious," says Vyse. On
      the other hand, he says if you think tapping the ball a certain number
      of times makes you win the game, you've entered superstitious territory.

      You might be wondering if certain superstitious behaviors -- such as
      like counting the number of times you tap a ball -- are really a sign of
      obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD often have
      compulsions to do rituals over and over again, often interfering with
      everyday life.

      A good example is Jack Nicholson's character in the movie "As Good As It
      Gets," who skips cracks in the sidewalk and eats at the same table in
      the same restaurant every day, with an inability to cope with any change
      in routine. While some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious
      behavior (and the two aren't mutually exclusive) Vyse says most of the
      evidence would indicate there is no connection between the two.

      "We don't think of anxiety disorders [such as OCD] as superstitious
      thinking. We think of it as irrational thinking, and most of our
      patients understand that," says Paul Foxman, PhD, an anxiety expert from
      Burlington, Vt. "But I do have patients that tell me that they believe
      that if they don't worry about something, then the likelihood of it
      happening will go up, and that is a superstitious thought," he says.

      The key is to pay attention to your own thinking, particularly if you
      experience any symptoms of anxiety -- tension, excessive worry, trouble
      sleeping, obsessive thoughts and exhaustion, for example. If you
      experience these symptoms or find that you have repetitive ritualized
      behavior that's out of control -- superstitious or not -- get
      professional help from a doctor or therapist.


      Wanting more control or certainty is the driving force behind most
      superstitions. We tend to look for some kind of a rule, or an
      explanation for why things happen.

      "Sometimes the creation of a false certainty is better than no certainty
      at all, and that is what much of the research suggests," says Vyse.

      Job interviews, testing, and other situations where we want things to go
      well -- regardless of our own preparation or performance -- can spur
      superstitious thoughts.

      "We are often in situations in life where something really important is
      about to happen, we've prepared for it as best we can, but it's still
      uncertain; it's still unclear," Vyse says. No matter how confident or
      prepared you are for an event -- whether it's a football game, a
      wedding, or a presentation -- things can still happen beyond your
      control. "Superstitions provide people with the sense that they've done
      one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for."


      A sense of security and confidence are perhaps the greatest benefits we
      get emotionally from superstitious thinking or behavior -- like carrying
      an object or wearing an item of clothing that you deem to be lucky.

      Foxman says there is a positive placebo effect -- if you think something
      will help you, it may do just that. "There is a tremendous amount of
      power in belief," he says. If the outcome is a matter of pure luck,
      beliefs don't really have any impact, however, when your performance is
      a key factor in an outcome, superstitious thinking might give you an
      extra boost.

      "There can be a real psychological effect of superstitious thoughts,"
      says Vyse. If you've done well before when you had a particular shirt
      on, for example, it might prove wise to wear the shirt again, if it
      helps to relieve anxiety and promotes positive thoughts. But this way of
      thinking can also hinder your performance, if say, you lose your lucky

      It's not news that expectations can be extremely powerful and
      suggestive. Studies regularly point to placebo effects (both positive
      and negative), which are entirely caused by the power of expectations or
      preconceptions. Yet superstitions can also play a negative role in our
      lives, especially when combined with a bad habit such as gambling. If
      you're a compulsive gambler who believes that you can get lucky, then
      that belief may contribute to your problem.

      Phobic (fearful) superstitions can also interfere with our lives, and
      cause a lot of anxiety, says Vyse. For example, people who are afraid of
      Friday the 13th might change travel arrangements or skip an appointment
      because of unnecessary anxiety. These types of superstitions offer no
      benefit at all.


      Being superstitious is something we often learn as children, and
      according to the Gallup poll, older folks are less likely to believe in

      Generally speaking, women are more superstitious than men, Vyse says.
      When was the last time you saw an astrology column in a men's magazine?
      Women may also experience more anxiety, or at least, more women than men
      seek help for anxiety problems. Although personality variables are not a
      strong factor in developing superstition, there is some evidence that if
      you are more anxious than the average person you're slightly more likely
      to be superstitious.

      Vyse says our locus of control can also be a factor contributing to
      whether or not we are superstitious. If you have an internal locus of
      control, you believe that you are in charge of everything; you are the
      master of your fate and you can make things happen. If you have an
      external locus of control, "you're sort of buffeted by life, and things
      happen to you instead of the other way around," Vyse tells WebMD.
      People with external locus of control are more likely to be
      superstitious, possibly as a way of getting more power over their lives.
      "Part of the reason why women are more superstitious than men is that
      women feel, even in today's modern society, that they have less control
      over their fate than men do."

      Intelligence seems to have little to do with whether or not we subscribe
      to superstitions. Vyse says that on the Harvard campus -- where one
      would assume there are a lot of intelligent people -- students
      frequently rub the foot of the statue of John Harvard for good luck.

      In a sense, a superstition, like other rituals, can become part of a
      campus, community or culture, and can help bring people together. "Most
      of the superstitions people engage in are perfectly fine, and are not
      pathological," says Vyse. Now that's good news, and it's just in time
      for Halloween.
      Published Wednesday, October 6, 2004.

      SOURCES: Stuart Vyse, PhD, professor and chair, department of
      psychology, Connecticut College; author, Believing in Magic: The
      Psychology of Superstition. Paul Foxman, PhD, director, Center for
      Anxiety Disorders, Burlington, Vt. Press Release, The Gallup
      Organization web site.

      © 2004 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
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