Why are so many people superstitious?
It is easy to make fun of other people’s superstitions, but even the most rational among us have our superstitious ideas. Some people absolutely refuse to sleep on the 13th floor of a hotel or carry a lucky charm with them when they have to sit an exam, and others might feel uneasy if someone states their confidence that an important event is going to go well, worrying that maybe they are “tempting fate”.
Objectively, superstitions don’t make sense, so why—in our modern, scientifically aware world—are so many people so attached to what are essentially irrational beliefs?
There are lots of things that we can do to make our and our families’ lives safer and more comfortable. We can insist that everyone in the car has their seat belt on. We can do our best to consume a healthy diet and get enough exercise. We can take out insurance so that we’re protected if things go wrong. And yet, nobody can ever guarantee that something unexpected won’t happen, and we all know that tragedy can strike people at random. That is scary.
A fear of the unknown is what gives superstitions their power. Among all living species, only human beings have the intellectual ability to wonder about what the future holds—and to worry about it. Feeling that we have some degree of control over what is going to happen, even if that feeling is completely illusory, can help us to deal with uncertainty.
Research shows that the most superstitious people are generally those who live with the highest levels of risk. For example, soldiers often carry “lucky” objects with them when they have to enter dangerous situations, while professional athletes, whose careers can be destroyed by a poor performance, often have rites and rituals that they engage in before a sporting event.
When superstitions help us to deal with living in an uncertain world, we can see them as having a useful function. Even if we don’t have a particularly risky job, we all face risk at some point in our lives and engaging in superstitious thoughts and rituals can help us to deal with and manage the uncertainty that we experience.
However, it is important to maintain a healthy balance between ritualised thoughts and behaviours that help us to deal with difficult periods in our lives and being rational. If we notice our superstitions interfering with our normal, everyday lives, this is a sign that we might have a problem. There can be a thin line between a superstitious practice and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for example. People with OCD may come to believe that they “have” to wash their hands a certain number of times after touching anything, up to the point whereby their skin cracks and bleeds from excessive contact with water. Alternately, someone might find that what was once a comforting ritual that helped them in stressful moments has now become an obstacle to taking reasonable risks and living a full life.
When it comes to superstitious beliefs and practices, it is important to maintain a healthy balance.
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