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What are superstitions – and why people believe in them

We have all come across some form of superstition throughout our lives, whether it is something we believe in ourselves or something that we have heard. While some superstitions are commonplace such as crossing your fingers to make your wishes come true, others are so bizarre that they make you skeptical.

However, one thing that all superstitions have in common is that they usually stem from a fear that people have of the unknown, and even in the face of evidence that is contrary, people continue to stubbornly believe in them.

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So, what are superstitions, where do they come from, and why do we believe in them?

What are Superstitions?

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Superstitions have been defined in multiple ways, one of which is as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation”.  Simply put, they are the beliefs that certain events or actions are thought to bring either good or bad luck.

Superstitions are the faith that people have in supernatural forces and a desperate method used in times of unpredictability. Most superstitions are actually believed to be ways to resolve any uncertainty. It provides a sense of control of the uncontrollable, albeit false, for those who cannot let go of the reign. Psychologists believe that people tend to be superstitious in the face of various adverse events that usually cause insecurity, anxiety, fear, and anger in them. The various rituals and practices stem from an attempt to retake control of life during troubled times.

These beliefs are usually self-imposed, mostly about supernatural influences and a faith that humans rely on magic, chance, and divinity instead of natural causes. These beliefs revolve around a mysterious force controlling good fortune or bad luck and a conception that people cannot achieve much with their own efforts.

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People believe that only by doing some sort of ritual or by behaving in certain ways, can they influence the mysterious force to act according to their needs. These beliefs and rituals are always arbitrary in nature, with no logical reasoning.

History of Superstitions


Where there are humans and civilizations, superstitions always follow. The use of amulets, charms, and totems has been widely prevalent throughout the past to ward off evil spirits and has continued to date.

The practice of making sacrifices is also superstitious behavior that past civilizations indulged in to be blessed with more good luck. Many superstitions of the past have even become religious practices and rituals.

Some infamous superstitions such as the unlucky number 13 have been around for many years and are even linked to religion and mythology. For example, the number 13 as an unlucky number has its roots in ancient Norse mythology, where Loki was the thirteenth member, as well as in Christian mythology where Jesus’s crucifixion is linked to the last supper where there were thirteen guests.

Some superstitious beliefs may even have roots in some commonsensical and practical aspects that have now transformed into a set of rules to live by. Take the example of the common superstitions such as ‘don’t walk under a ladder’ or ‘breaking a mirror causes bad luck’.

It is common sense that both these are dangerous situations, in the first one, you may make the person on the ladder fall down, while in the second you will be exposed to glass shards that cause injuries. Superstitions may have stemmed as a means to ensure that people avoided danger even subconsciously.

Reasons Why People Believe in Superstitions

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The definition of superstitions says that they are nonsensical and irrational beliefs, yet billions of people from around the world believe in some form of superstition or other in the course of their daily lives. There are various reasons for people being superstitious. When a certain positive or negative event is associated with some behavior, superstitions are born.

  • Lack of Control

One of the biggest reasons for people’s faith in superstition is the lack of control people have over their own lives. By believing in these superstitions, they have false hope and a sense of security that things will happen accordingly.

Luck is fickle, it is hard to control and influence. Hence people assume there are supernatural forces at work even in all the randomness of life. After all, no one would want to take the risk to tempt fate, so they are attracted to being superstitious.

  • Economic Instability

There is also research that shows the correlation between economic instability and the degree of people believing in superstitions and this relation has been found to be proportional.

Especially during times of war when there is a high sense of social uncertainty as well as economic crises happening, the belief in superstitions across society increases. New superstitions are always rising in times of upheaval.

  • Culture and Tradition

Some superstitions are deeply rooted in the culture or tradition of the person and since they grow up steeped in these superstitions, they too propagate it almost subconsciously. These beliefs and rituals are ingrained within young minds even before they start questioning them and they become second nature.

  • Dual Thinking Model

Psychologists have devised the theory of ‘thinking fast and slow. This basically propounds that the human brain is capable of both intuitive and snappy thinking while also having a more rational thought process. In the case of superstitions, people are able to recognize that their thoughts are irrational, yet they are unable to correct them. In other words, they hold two ideas in their minds at the same time – a form of cognitive dissonance.

Often the belief in superstition is simply because people don’t want to tempt fate. After all, the consequences of not following these superstitions and the calamities predicted to outweigh the price to be paid compared to the silliness we sometimes feel when following these behaviors and practices.

Effects of Superstitions

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  • Relieves Anxiety and Stress

In situations where people lose a sense of control over their lives and are anxious over the unknown, a superstitious belief has a soothing effect. Having routine and ritualistic behavior can be a source of comfort to many and a way to keep themselves on track mentally.

  • Increased Self-Confidence

Studies have shown that those who followed certain superstitious practices, such as keeping their fingers crossed, wearing certain clothes, and so on, had better performance not only in sporting activities but also in other areas.

The improvement in performance is linked to the elevated confidence levels that ensured a certain self-efficacy. This can also be a placebo effect, which comes from carrying out a superstitious belief before performing in an event that gives them a feeling of being lucky. These rituals may also help to focus and find a flow, which improves performance.

  • Poor Decision-Making

Although most often than not, superstitious beliefs take the form of harmless habits, sometimes, they may lead to confusion, misunderstandings, and poor decision-making, since the people who believe in them see only a magical view of reality. When trusting in good luck and destiny, people may not always make sound decisions.

  • Mental Health

Superstitions may affect the mental health of a person and those with OCD are especially vulnerable, as these beliefs manifest as fixations. Those who have this ‘magical thinking’ OCD may become unable to dismiss their superstitious behaviors. Even those with anxiety disorders are negatively impacted by superstitious beliefs and should seek help.

Wrapping up

As long as the superstitions do not have a negative impact on mental health or lead to bad decisions, there is no harm in following them. After all, no one loses out by following a few of superstitious rituals. As an added bonus, if these practices boost performance and confidence levels, they may not be all that bad.

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Athira is a lawyer by day and a content writer by night. With her background in law, she has a keen interest in researching and writing about everything under the sun. The topics that interest her the most include mythology from around the world and conspiracy theories. When not lawyering or writing, you can find her learning a new language or trying out an anime theme song on her violin.