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On Superstitions

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Are you superstitious? If you are then you had better stay in bed hiding under the covers, knock on wood, delay that flight or drive to another city, and not start any new projects today because it’s another Friday the 13th! If you are one of the millions of people who fear Friday the 13th then you may be suffering from “friggatriskaidekaphobia.” Try saying that word three times in a row and as rapidly as you can!

There are many other superstitious beliefs such as: 1. If a black cat crosses your path you will have bad luck, 2. If you break a mirror you are in for 7 years of bad luck. 3. It’s important to keep your lucky charm with you so that good things will happen. 4. You always say, “God bless you,” if someone sneezes. 5. When someone you know is about to go on stage,you tell them to, “Break a leg,” to ensure a good performance. The list can go on endlessly.

You would be wrong if you think only neurotic or depressed people hold onto these beliefs. Architects omit the 13th floor when they build skyscrapers. Baseball players have been known to wear the same shirt everyday, without washing it, if they are having a great hitting streek. The movie industry in Mumbai, India, called Bollywood, is reluctant to distribute movies on the 13th of each month.

How does psychology explain the origins of superstitions?

Before answering that question, it’s important to point out that even some of the best psychologists and other professionals hold onto superstitions despite knowing that there is no evidence to support them. In fact, even the most scientific and rational of us can’t help but have some of our own superstitions.

The human mind is quick to make causal connections between beliefs and events. If one believes in the dangers of Friday the 13th and something unfortunate happens that day, then the superstition is strongly reinforced.

The causal connection does not have to be between a superstitious belief and something bad happening. Just as with the baseball player, if he believes in superstitions and his hitting streek starts when he is wearing his red shirt, he will continue to wear it in order to prolong the streek.

The human tendency to make causal connections helps explain another powerful motivating factor in this. People feel better if they have a sense of control over events. For example, many football fans are convinced that, if they fail to watch their team play, the team will lose. There are all kinds of variations on the same theme.

I’m skeptical about superstitions but, if I spill salt on the table, I have to throw some over my left shoulder!! Oh, yes, and I do get a knot in my stomach on Friday the 13th!

What are your opinions about superstitions? If you would rather wait until the 14th to respond, its okay with me.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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