Fw: Psychology of Superstition:Does magical thinking overtake yoursenses?
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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUPERSTITION: IS 'MAGICAL THINKING' HURTING OR HELPING
YOU? HOW SUPERSTITIOUS ARE YOU?! -
By Sarah Albert,
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD
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
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?
SUPERSTITION, RITUAL OR ANXIETY?
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
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
"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."
FRIEND OR FOE?
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
"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.
AND THE AWARD FOR MOST SUPERSTITIOUS GOES TO....
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
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.