|Beliefs often emerge from people who wanted to have a sort of control over their lives or of a particular situation / Photo by Getty Images|
Most of us grew up in a society believing in superstitions. In one way or another, we have been forced to believe them even though there are no accurate or scientific explanations about them. Even in this modern era, a lot of communities in many countries around the world believe in superstitions that make us avoid breaking mirrors, crossing paths with black cats, dealing with the number 13, walking under ladders, and many more because they are considered bad luck. On the other hand, we also tend to knock twice on wood to help avert something disastrous.
People also believe that having an itchy palm, finding a horseshoe, tossing salt over the shoulder, and saying "God bless you" are signs of good luck. According to statistics reported by the Reader's Digest, about 13% of Americans cringe at the sight of a black cat, 74% of people living in the United Kingdom said that they knock on wood to prevent bad luck, and an estimated 17 to 21 million Americans are afraid of Friday the 13th. Superstitious beliefs indeed still exist in our society despite modernization and enlightenment.
Myths and superstitions are a crucial part of cultures and help in shaping a community. Over the years, these beliefs have also evolved in the process. Many people still rely on them throughout their lives, introducing them to the new generation. Because of this, superstitions will live as long as there are people who believe in them. But why do people still believe in superstitions despite technological advancements and the knowledge that science brings?
Why People Believe in the Unbelievable
Superstitions have existed for as long as there have been people on the planet. It basically shaped how people perceive things, especially good luck and bad luck. Superstitions are defined as "a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Psychologist and Professor Stuart Vyse at the Connecticut College also described it as “an action that is inconsistent with science."
According to an article by the Exemplore, some of the major sources of superstitions include myths, cultures, imaginative stories, and elders. Psychologists who have studied these beliefs found out that they existed mainly because of co-occurring, non-related events. For many people, especially those who deeply believe in superstitions, engaging with those beliefs provide them a sense of control and can even reduce anxiety.
One of the reasons why people still believe in superstitions is that they have been ingrained in our lives since the very beginning. Elders would often teach new generations around them about things that should be practiced or followed. Vyse wrote in his book titled "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition" that superstitions are a major part of the basic process of socialization and that they are part of the lore of any culture.
|Some of the major sources of superstitions include myths, cultures, imaginative stories, and elders / Photo by Getty Images|
People also tend to become superstitious because they feel very desperate to find reasons for all the misfortunes that have come to them. For instance, they can blame their mistakes or rejections to bad luck, which helps them avoid becoming stressed. New studies also showed that people who are in a stressful situation tend to believe not only in rituals but also in conspiracy theories. And because of this, they are more like to believe in things that actually do not exist.
Additionally, superstitious beliefs come from people who need a soothing control mechanism. These beliefs often emerge from people who wanted to have a sort of control over their lives or of a particular situation. Kevin Foster, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, also stated that evolution might also be one of the reasons behind superstitions. “A prehistoric human might associate rustling grass with the approach of a predator and hide. Most of the time, the wind will have caused the sound, but if a group of lions is coming, there’s a huge benefit to not being around," he said.
Science writer Matthew Hutson also stated that superstitions that “give” people a sense of good luck provides them a better sense of self-efficacy. This was shown in a study published in Psychological Science in which the researchers gave their participants golf balls, telling them that half of their golf balls were lucky. Participants who have been told to have "lucky" golf balls had 35% more successful putts.
How Superstitions Spread
Using an evolutionary approach to studying the emergence of coordinated behaviors, two theoretical biologists from the University of Pennsylvania studied how superstitions become accepted social norms in a society. According to an article by the Science Daily, their study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows how each group of individuals with distinct belief systems can become a coordinated set of behaviors.
In an interview, Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania, stated that a set of beliefs can emerge in a system that can eventually create superstitions. The researchers used an application of game theory, which tries to know how people interact and make decisions in a social setting. They discovered that evolutionarily stable norms create a consistent belief system that shapes the overall behavior of many people.