Psychology of Superstitions: Why do we believe the unbelievable?

Psychology of Superstitions: Why do we believe the unbelievable? "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown", said H.P. Lovecraft. Fear is indubitably the strongest of all emotions. Perhaps, it is this fear in us, that lays a strong base for the belief in superstitions.

In this article, we shall discuss superstitions and many more aspects associated with it. Let's begin.

Psychology of  Superstitions

What is meant by 'Superstition'?

The meaning of superstition as defined by the oxford dictionary is, 'an irrational fear of the unknown or supernatural'. There are millions of superstitions dispersed across the world. It would not only be tedious but also an impossible task to mention every single one of them. Here, we've cited a few common ones.

1. Numbers

Some numbers are believed to bring good luck while some others the opposite. Different cultures revere or fear different numbers. For example, there is widespread fear in Chinese regarding number 4. For, number 4 is similar to the word for death, according to them. Ever heard of Triskaidekaphobia? It means fear of the number 13. In many countries, builders skip the 13th floor and straight away build the 14th floor after the 12th. 
In many cultures, 666 is believed to be the number of the devil. 
People use expressions like, 'bad luck always comes in threes'.

2. Knocking on wood

Another interesting superstition is that knocking on trees brings forth good luck. For, they are believed to be residents of 'good spirits'.

3. Lucky charms

People believe that some stuff like amulets, four-leaf clovers, horseshoe, white feathers, bracelets, jackets, shoes, etc welcome luck into their lives. 

4. Avoiding stepping on the cracks

Some people avoid stepping on cracks while walking. For, they believe if you step on cracks, a portal opens which drags you into the underworld.

5. Opening an umbrella indoors

Opening an umbrella indoors is considered terribly bad. Because people say that it is angering the Sun God.

6. Breaking a mirror

It is said that breaking a mirror is inauspicious and it makes bad luck haunt you for a period of 7 years. 

7. Miscellaneous

Spilling salt, spotting a black cat, sneezing right before doing something, walking under a ladder, writing one's name in red ink, etc are considered to bring bad luck.

Sources of superstition

There are innumerous superstitions prevailing in our society. And based on country, region, and religion, superstitions also differ from one place to the other. These superstitions are eclectic. They don't have one particular source of origin. Many superstitions that exist today are based on religion, folklore, myths, traditions, culture, social interaction, personal experiences, illiteracy, etc. Let's look at an example to understand this better.

 Many people consider the number 13 to be extremely unlucky. There's no logical explanation for this. But, we could actually trace it back to the Last supper, in which Lord Jesus dined with twelve of his disciples. Which means there were 13 people. And many people claim this to be the reason for the crucifixion of Jesus. Hence, deem 13 as a number associated with bad luck. 

Why do we believe in superstitions?

1. Childhood conditioning

In our childhood, we've been taught many things by our parents and elders. Even some of the core beliefs we hold as adults depend on how we were conditioned by our family and society. We were raised to respect and obey God and fear the demons. Along with knowledge, even these superstitions are being passed down from generation to generation. And not many people are courageous enough to question the existence of something. Many of us simply accept what we've been told without actually reflecting on the truth. 

2. Personal experience/ Operant conditioning

Let's say, you are a person who doesn't just believe in everything you come across. You are often skeptical about things. Tomorrow is your big day. And your mum advises you to put on a bracelet which according to her yields good luck. Even though you don't have faith in such things, for the love of your mother, you decide to put it on. Guess what, the next day you nailed it. Your superiors extolled you for doing outstandingly well. At this point of time, somewhere deep in your mind, a thought arises which says, 'Is this the magic of the bracelet?' Then the next time there's something important, you wouldn't forget to wear that 'lucky' bracelet of yours. This kind of behavior is called Operant conditioning.

Sometimes, these kinds of coincidences instill in us a slight belief regarding these things. Philip Fernbach rightly stated, "As human beings false belief is our birthright".

3. Lack of knowledge/ Ignorance

We all know that smoking kills. But, why is it bad? What exactly is in the smoke of cigarette which makes it cancerous? And what does it do to our body, brain, and cells?

You probably wouldn't know the answer to that one unless you studied biology or you are someone exceptionally intelligent.

So, in the above cigarette scenario, even though we don't know the exact orchestration behind the destruction caused by smoking, we do know that it kills. 
What I mean to say is that 'impartial/ half knowledge', ignorance of facts are also the reasons why we believe in superstitions. In many cases, even though we aren't fully aware of the facts, we believe things. And that is incorrect.

4. Sacred values

In some cases, like the passing away of a loved one gives us immense pain, macabre grief. Our love for them, sometimes makes us believe in the existence of supernatural elements like spirits. In these kinds of cases, our brain does not wish to acknowledge the truth even though it's aware of it. We somehow can't hold on to the belief that they aren't here anymore with us. To cope with that pain, our brain indulges in beliefs like life after death, spirits, communicating with the dead, etc. Our brain's coping, self-satisfaction mechanisms can extort us into believing superstitions.

5. Illusions

Superstitions and illusions

What do you see in the above image?
If your answer is a square, you've just been illusioned!!!

 In the above figure, four circles whose sectors have been cut out are arranged in such a way, that it looks like a square. Your brain tricked you into seeing a square by even filling out the absent edges, even though there isn't one.
This phenomenon happens in our daily lives too. Our brains have created something out of nothing in many cases.
The best example in this respect is the famous Bloodymary syndrome. If you look at yourself in the mirror, closely and keenly, for a span of time, your features appear to be distorted in the mirror. It's spooky yet scientific. This phenomenon is called the Troxler effect. 

6. Natural inclination

Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains are slightly wired to the negative. And slightly wired to fear. Since the basis of superstitions is fear, there is a natural propensity in us to believe in the unbelievable. 
As rightly stated by Bruce M.Hood, "Human beings are naturally inclined towards supernatural beliefs".

A story about the birth of a superstition

In a distant land, there lived a man called Tom. He had a son named Jerry who lived far from home. He also had an adorable cat called Snowbell. Tom was a devout catholic. Whenever he'd pray to God, Snowbell would be a disturbance to him. So, he made it a point to tether Snowbell before the beginning of prayer. This continued for years.
After a few years, Tom died of Cancer. Snowbell too passed away. Jerry loved his father too much. So he took on his father's responsibility. 
He knew that his father used to tether Snowbell before prayer. Without discerning the actual reason behind his father's actions, he thought that it might be a customary observance of their clan to tether a cat before prayer.
He bought a cat, only to be tethered while praying. And he taught his sons the same who taught their sons the same. And this continued.......

Statistical data about superstitions

In a Gallup poll conducted in 2005, one thousand plus adults were questioned about supernatural phenomena. The percentage of believers goes this way.

Extrasensory perception (41%)
Haunted houses (37%)
Ghosts (32%)
Telepathy (31%)
Clairvoyance (26%)
Astrology (25%)
Communication with the dead (21%)
Witches (21%)
Reincarnation (20%)
Spiritual possession (9%)

While 73% of the people believed in at least one of them, 27% of people believed in none at all.


There are many baseless beliefs still existing in our world. The purpose of education is to eradicate them rather than glorify them. It is the duty of every educated individual to spread the right kind of awareness in society.

There's another important thing we shouldn't forget. Not everything that doesn't have evidence can be ruled out as a superstition. For, there are many mysteries in this universe that are yet to be unfolded. 

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