Superstition is any belief or practice that is considered irrational or supernatural: for example, if it arises from ignorance, a misunderstanding of science or causality, a positive belief in fate or magic, or fear of that which is unknown.

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People have been indulging in weird superstitions throughout history. It used to be customary to tell honeybees when there was a (human) death in the family … “Or they will die, or go away”.

In 1888, the Washington Post republished a bit on a “curious superstition” seen in London; “No marriage can be a happy one unless the bride has one hair of every member of her family sewn into the lining of her wedding gown”.

The 13th day vast numbers of people across the world will avoid going about their usual business because they fear this day will bring them “bad luck.” In this Spotlight feature, we examine the psychological mechanisms behind superstitious thinking.

Speaking of business, not only do airlines and airports routinely skip a 13th aisle or the 13th gate, but more than 80% of high-rise buildings all over the world lack a 13th floor. Also, some hotels and hospitals often choose not to have a room with the number 13.

Billions of people across the world are superstitious. Recent trends reveal that younger people are more superstitious than older adults. In fact, 70% of U.S. students rely on good luck charms for better academic performance.

Millions of people in China think the color red or the number 8 will bring them wealth and happiness, while a study of consumers in Taiwan showed that shoppers tend to pay more money for fewer items in a package as long as the number of items in the package represents a “luckier” number

Most of us know that these beliefs are irrational, but we still abide by them. Why do we do it? Do superstitions fulfil an important psychological role, and if so, what is it? What are some of the mechanisms that explain these irrational beliefs, and how do superstitions affect our mental well-being?

Why do we believe the unbelievable?

The fascinating thing about superstitions is that we often believe in them despite knowing, on some level, that they can’t be true. Why do we do this?

Jane Risen, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth in Illinois and a member of the American Psychological Society, has used the so-called dual process model of cognition to explain our belief in superstitions.

According to Risen (and other renowned authors, such as Daniel Kahneman), humans can think both “fast” and “slow.” The former mode of thinking is snappy and intuitive, while the latter is more rational, and its main job is to override the intuitive judgment when it finds errors.

The dual thinking model is an established one, but in the case of superstitions, Risen suggests that the model should undergo refinements. The researcher notes that error detection does not automatically involve error correction. In other words, people can realize that their belief is wrong but still act on it.

But superstitions are not merely a manifestation of our flawed cognition. Sometimes superstitions offer a host of benefits.

How superstitions may relieve anxiety

Sometimes superstitions can have a soothing effect, relieving anxiety about the unknown and giving people a sense of control over their lives. This may also be the reason why superstitions have survived for so long as people have passed them on from generation to generation.

As an article appearing in the International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences states, “Superstition has its roots in our species’ youth when our ancestors could not understand the forces and whims of [the] natural world. Survival of our ancestors was threatened by predation or other natural forces.”

Superstitions may improve performance

There is evidence that positive, luck-enhancing superstitions provide a psychological benefit that can improve skilled performance. There is anxiety associated with the kinds of events that bring out superstition.

The absence of control over an important outcome creates anxiety. So, even when we know on a rational level that there is no magic, superstitions can be maintained by their emotional benefit.

Finally superstitions comfort us. They allow us to feel like we have some control over a chaotic world, even if our actions are meaningless. When so few things in the world are predictable, that’s an irresistible comfort. Superstitions don’t make us stupid; they make us human.