Psychology in the News

November 15, 2008

The power of superstition

Filed under: culture, social influence — Tags: , , , — intro2psych @ 4:39 pm

by Evan Glenn

Photo by Azrainman

Image by Azrainman

Ladders, shattered mirrors, black cats. Rabbits’ feet, lucky pennies, four leaf clovers. We have all grown up familiar with various superstitions and whether you personally choose to believe them or not, it is undeniable of the effect superstition has on lots of people. Stage actors, public speakers, and sports athletes in particular are famous for their strange and often funny habits. Superstition is even prevalent among our political leaders; Senator and former  presidential candidate John McCain is known to possess a lucky compass, a lucky penny, a lucky rabbits foot and a lucky feather; McCain even has a ritual to go watch a movie before election votes are counted.

Interestingly, a study reported the Journal of Consumer Research had evidence that consumers are influences by superstition as well. On Friday the thirteenth 800-900 million dollars is lost in business in the United States. Kramer and Block also found in a similar study that Taiwanese people would purchase a radio for 888 yuan rather than 777 yuan(8 is a lucky number in Chinese culture).

So why are our heads of state carrying around their lucky compasses? Why is superstition so alluring to those people who practice it? One study performed  by Jennifer Witson and Adam Galinsky gave evidence suggesting that those who practice superstitious behavior are doing so in order to feel more in control of a situation. In one part of the experiment, they asked a group of subjects a series of questions. Even if the subject got most of the questions right, they were told they got most of the questions wrong; this would confuse the subjects and make them feel a loss of control. Then these subjects were shown two different kinds of pictures; one kind made up of random dots that didn’t make a particular shape and the other kind with dots that had a picture in them. While 95 percent of the subjects identified the dots with images in them, 43 percent saw images in the pictures that were simply random dots. This section of the experiment, along with the data gathered from the rest of the experiment, showed that humans feel calmer once they have found some sort of pattern, even if there really isn’t one.


University of Chicago Press Journals (2008, February 12). Are You Feeling Lucky? How Superstition Impacts Consumer Choice. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from­/releases/2008/02/080212122050.htm

Bailey, H. (2008, January 9). A Lucky Nickel. Newsweek. Retrieved October 16, 2008, from Newsweek Web site:

University of Texas at Austin Public Affairs (2008, October 2). Loss of Control Leads People to Seek Order Through Superstition, Ritual. Retrieved November 15, 2008 from


  1. I must admit–I am a very superstitious person. I have lucky necklaces, a lucky pair of shoes, and even a lucky toothbrush. After reading this post and thinking about my various superstitions, I realized that I have a bit of an obsession with the idea of “jinxing” something, as well. For example, I will never predict that I will do well on a test, regardless of how well prepared I know that I am, because I worry that if I predict a good outcome, I will “jinx” myself and the test will therefore go terribly. It turns out that this idea that interfering with fate will lead to a negative situation has nothing to do with superstitions. In a study done by Dr. Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell, they suggest that a negative image or situation tends to be more accessible than a positive one. For example, Risen and Gilovich found that college students who don’t do their reading believe that they are therefore more likely to be called on in class. They also found that students believe that if someone who applies to Stanford goes around wearing a Stanford T-shirt, he is less likely to get accepted. So, it’s not just superstition that we have to worry about anymore–it turns out that this idea of tempting fate opens up a whole new Pandora’s box of things to worry about.

    Tierney, John. (2008). Why Superstition is Logical. The New York Times.
    Retrieved November 17, 2008, from,

    Comment by Haley Tanenbaum — November 17, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  2. While the case may be that superstitions today help people have some sense of control over their chaotic lives by creating a pattern, even if there is not one, most superstitions’ origins lie in the past. The fact is that many superstitions have been present around us for hundreds of years, even though many of these origins have been lost in time. For example, the superstition that spilling salt will bring you bad luck comes from the middle ages, when salt was a very expensive commodity. Consequently, spilling salt was to be avoided at all costs. In addition, salt was once regarded as incorruptible, and it became the symbol of friendship. Consequently, the spilling of salt foreshadowed the breaking of friendship. However, there was a “counter” move available. Tradition has it that the left shoulder is selected to appease the devil. Thus, if the man whom the salt has fallen towards takes up a single pinch of salt between the finger and the thumb of his right hand and cast it over his left shoulder, the threatened misfortune will be averted. Who would have thought such small superstitions had such an detailed pasts?

    Knowlson, T. Sharper (1910). “The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs.” Retrieved November 23, 2008, from,

    Comment by Sam Erlichson McCarthy — November 23, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

  3. While over half of all Americans consider themselves at least a little superstitious, it is important to consider when superstitious thoughts might verge on becoming unhealthy. When ritualized, superstitious behavior becomes more and more consuming, it may be a sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While superstitious behavior is common, OCD is a relatively rare anxiety disorder that includes persistent compulsions to partake in rituals that frequently interfere with normal daily activities. OCD is associated with irrational thought, rather than superstitious thought, but the two can oftentimes appear similar. Just as the above post states that superstitious behavior is meant to increase feelings of control, OCD-related compulsions are performed in order to control some of the overwhelming anxiety the individual feels. Although superstitious thought and OCD compulsions are not connected, they do share some similarities and help increase feelings of control.

    Albert, Sarah. (2004). The Psychology of Superstition. WebMD. Retrieved November 30, 2008, from,

    Comment by Katie Holdefehr — December 1, 2008 @ 12:03 am

  4. Concerning individuals lacking the perception of control in their own lives, superstition seems to be the negative reinforcement that eliminates their anticipated aversive reaction. It has been hypothesized this application of Skinner’s theory is the reason so many individuals practice superstision: they are conditioned to do so. Whitson and Galinsky performed an experiment in which participants either wrote about a situation in which they had control, or one in which they had no control. Afterwards, participants read short stories in which the outcomes, usually a positive reward, were preceded by behaviors that were unrelated. Participants that wrote about a time that they had no control were more likely to link the behavior to the outcome, and were even apprehensive about what would happen in the story if the character did not perform this ritual. Remind you of any feathered, boxed-in friends of ours?

    Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University (2008, October 14). When Seeing IS Believing. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from /releases/2008/10/081003081639.htm

    Comment by Jenny Taylor — December 3, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  5. Though superstitions are ultimately about feeling more in control of a situation in which one usually does not have such an ability, or about preventing a loss that has already happened, there is an additional factor: word of mouth. Superstition is ancient not just because of various cultural aspects of a certain time, nor does it stem out of purely one’s experiences, but also has a widespread scale. Everyone has heard of the danger with luck when it comes to broken mirrors, walking under ladders, and black cat, but who is able to figure out such superstitions without having a direct experience? Probably from a friend who heard from another friend who might’ve had a direct experience (that is if you know the right people). One can not rule out the importance of word of mouth, even in this age of advanced technology and “reason.”

    Vyse, S. A. (1997). Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. US: Oxford University Press.

    Comment by Tiffany Win — December 4, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

  6. I too agree that some superstitions have their origin in the past, but this may not necessarily be true for all cases. While most individuals are fully aware of common superstitions such as “spilling salt” or “ladders, shattered mirrors, and black cats,” perhaps the most common superstitions are those that are personal and can be explain by conditioning. Dr. Vyse claims, “Wanting more control or certainty is the driving force behind most superstitions.” If this is the case, an individual may specifically create superstitions because he or she believes it gives them more control over their lives or a specific event. For example, an athlete may eat the same meal before every game because he or she thinks it will allow them to play better. But why? Why do individuals believe that superstitions are the key to more control? Perhaps the answer lies in operant conditioning. Individuals may create rituals or superstitions because they associate these with a positive outcome. In operant conditioning, increased behavior is often associated with positive reinforcement. In the case of the athlete previously mentioned, the superstitious act of eating a certain meal is likely associated with a successful game or match. When this happens, the athlete increases this behavior and is, in turn, rewarded accordingly with more wins. “Superstitions provide people with the sense that they’ve done one more thing to try to ensure the outcome they are looking for.” And the frequent application of the superstition occurs when the outcome is indeed what individuals are looking for.

    Albert, Sarah. “The Psychology of Superstition.” 1 Dec. 2008 .
    Braslau-Schneck, Stacy. “Operant Conditioning.” An Animal Trainer’s Introduction To Operant and Classical Conditioning. 1 Dec. 2008 .

    Comment by Matt Pearce — December 6, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

  7. The concept of people feeling powerless relying more on superstition to structure the chaos that they feel rings very true for me. When I was seven I thought that if I put my thumbs together in a certain way each night, my grandmother wouldn’t die. Though when she did, the following year, it threw all of my rituals into doubt. Yet the concept of needing an internal locus of control, of needing to know that the personal agency resides in you, the individual, is very applicable to this. The Laudenslager executive rat study makes that very clear.
    Yet human beings don’t just look for patterns everywhere as a constant back-up stress reducer, in a series of six experiments, Whitson and Galinsky showed that finding patterns and structure around you spikes when you’re feeling out of control.

    Whitson and Galinsky, (October 2008). “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception.” Retrieved December 6, 2008, from

    “Stress and Health” Retrieved December 6, 2008, from,

    Comment by Anna Tarshish — December 7, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  8. Another explanation for the power of superstition comes from Skinner’s paper “Superstition in the Pigeon,” which we discussed in class. This paper studied the effects of positive reinforcement in pigeons and demonstrated that pigeons will increase certain behavirs for rewards. Skinner then wondered what would happen if positive reinforcement was provided after random behaviors. He showed that pigeons could associate completely random behaviors with the acquirement of food and then increase those behaviors. Perhaps superstition development occurred this way in humans in certain instances and was then carried through cultures through observational learning.

    Comment by Tom Renjilian — December 10, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

  9. It’s certainly true that humans feel a need to find order (even when it may or may not exist). It is this desire to explain the unknowable that probably led to the development of religions. When early humans were confused about things like the seasons, the weather, birth, and death, they invented stories to explain life. For those who are religious, a formal set of truths and rules for life can be incredibly comforting. Whether or not you believe that religion is a form of superstition, it definitely plays a similar role in peoples lives. It acts as a stabilizing force in a world that may sometimes seem out of control.

    Some Theories on the Origins of Religion. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 10 December 2008. .

    Comment by Sarah Begley — December 10, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

  10. While some superstitions are ritualistic, some have evolved through time to become full fledged traditions. For example, the story behind Lunar New Year stated that the arrival of a monster marked the end of a year. In ancient times, people would burn bamboo to scare away the monster. This act is simulated through the lighting of firecrackers now. It has become part of the tradition in celebrating Lunar New Year. Rituals become traditions through constant usage because it works. While the monster isn’t believed in anymore, loud noises have become so associated with Lunar New Years such that New Years wouldn’t be complete without firecrackers. Now, firecrackers are used more for festivities sake rather than as a superstitious medium. Who knew that superstition can transform into entertainment.

    Comment by Eric Hou — December 11, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

  11. I will admit that I am superstitious about some things, but not as much as other people are. More specifically, I have a lucky arm band that I wear whenever I fence at tournaments that brings me good luck. I wear the same arm band every time I fence and to me it is a good luck charm. Many athletes have lucky items that get them through their game or their tournament, meet, or whatever they’re doing. According to Dr. Richard Lustberg, Ph.D. the superstition creates a confidence inside the player and even sometimes the coach. He looked at the former Red Sox and Yankees’ player Wade Boggs and how he was often referred to as the “Chicken Man”. This is because Boggs would eat chicken habitually before every game and would also start wind sprints exactly sixteen minutes before each game. There are many other athletes that have their own ways of expressing their superstitions.

    Lustberg, Richard (2004, June 23). Superstition in Sports. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from Psychology of Sports Web site:

    Comment by Chris Wheeler — December 12, 2008 @ 3:24 am

  12. As many of the people who have commented on this topic, I used to be a strong believer in superstitutions. I grew up with the usual ones like spilling salt and walking under ladders and some unsual ones like sweeping over a person’s feet (will cause them to not get married). These superstitutions seemed so real and frightening and then a few years ago I was introduced to the Law Attraction. The Law of Attraction is essentially the positive version of a superstition. The same amount of energy that one would use to fear an action or avoid a situation, people can use to think positively of something they would like to see or happen. I believe that this “law” is equally powerful and 100% much more positive. Im interested to see what would happen if people thought “if that black cat crosses my path I will get good luck” as opposed to the usual belief of recieving bad luck. Although, superstitions are not always negatives this concept differs in that it is more a state of mind than an accepted belief. My advice is to try to stop the superstitious beliefs and strive to be in a more positive state of mind. You will be suprised to what this concept might bring you.

    Comment by Kleaver Cruz — December 14, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

  13. This makes me think back to the class on superstitions. If humans are indeed similar to the pigeons from Skinner’s experiments, and we develop superstitions due mostly to coincidence and reinforcement, I’m just curious what happened to encourage someone to carry something like a severed rabbit’s foot around? And why were they doing it in the first place for that matter?

    Comment by Brianna — December 14, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

  14. I never thought of myself as a very superstitious person. However, I find myself partaking in superstitious behaviors every day. As a basketball player, I know that I have pre-game rituals that I feel are necessary to me playing well. Perhaps these are things I do in order to feel in control of my level of play, as suggested by the post above. Are my rituals before every game really necessary for my success? Or do I just think they are? Either way I do not see myself refraining from these activities, whether or not they work 100% of the time.

    Comment by Brittany Parks — December 14, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

  15. Although I am not a particularly superstitious person, there is no denying that people often seek order and in turn find patterns in random information. Superstition was also explored in depth in 1948 by Skinner in his study “Superstitions in the pigeon.” His experiments involved using non-contingent reinforcement through rewarding the pigeons at 15 second intervals regardless of their behavior. He found that whatever random behavior the pigeon performed before receiving the reward increased in frequency. In conclusion, superstition is in it’s own way a form of operant conditioning.

    Comment by Natalie Santiago — October 27, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  16. Risen and Gilovich (2008) did a very interesting study about superstition and whether some superstitions were rooted in the belief that people did not want to “tempt fate.” First, they did two experiments in which participants were told a story about a person either “angered the gods” or “mollified the gods.” Participants who were told the latter story believed that the character in the story was more likely to succeed than the participants who were told the former story. This showed that people think success is related to whether you tempt fate or not. Next, they did four more experiments to determine the cause for this belief. One experiment tested people’s reaction time to various stories, and how long it took them to rate the stories as “logical” or “illogical.” When characters were “punished” for tempting fate, the participants responded much more quickly than when they were not punished. This experiment shows that negative outcomes are the most readily available. They ultimately showed that this availability of negative outcomes and its connection with tempting fate is rooted in our subconscious.

    I think this study is a really interesting perspective on superstitions. Many of us say “knock on wood” or try not to “jinx” things, but in actuality, there isn’t necessarily a learned association between not doing one of those things and receiving a negative outcome. I think it’s really interesting that this association is something that comes from our subconscious.


    Comment by Hannah E. — November 28, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  17. The need to create order or imaginary order, often called compensatory control, is prevalent in our lives beyond simply superstitions. In the same way that the post describes superstitions as a means of feeling in control over a situation where one has little control, people tend to place more belief in their government and in controlling divine powers during economic depressions. Superstitions and faith in government and gods reduce anxiety caused by uncertainty and feelings of helplessness.

    Kay, A., Whitson, J., Gaucher, D, and Galinsu, A (2009). “Compensatory Control: Achieving Order Through the Mind, Our Institutions, and the Heavens.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 264-268.

    Comment by 105 student — May 2, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

  18. Hey, I’m a year 12 student in Australia and am currently researching the psychology of superstitions. If there is anyone that knows anything about this and I could send a interview via e-mail (won’t be too long) please contact me at

    Comment by Dani Kom — March 15, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  19. […] we attribute so many things to the moment of circumstance associated with events in our lives ( It seems that a good superstition is more attractive and measurable than complex reality. Culture […]

    Pingback by Why Be Rational When the Good Old LTI Superstition Will Do? — March 27, 2014 @ 6:06 am

  20. I find it very fascinating that although there is no reason to believe superstitions are rational in the first place and most, if not all, people acknowledge this about their own superstitions, they still continue to hold them. Even I am guilty of this, always being careful not to “jinx” myself before a test (as someone commented here 6 years ago) or wear a particularly “unlucky” shirt on a day I have high expectations for. I know that my actions have no effect on a test that I already took and that my shirt won’t affect my entire day (unless there’s some extreme butterfly effect in action), but I never actually stop doing them. What could be the background for this? Why do people’s brains work this way?

    Comment by Elijah Lucey — May 9, 2014 @ 11:42 am

  21. I thought that the experiment performed was particularly interesting. However, I’m not sure how the experimenters ensured that the random dots really had no image as it is possible people actually saw an image in the dots. I have also always wondered why some people continue doing the superstitious rituals or follow the same situations over and over even when they prove to not work.

    Comment by spongebob — December 16, 2014 @ 4:27 pm

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