Why We Believe in Superstitions

We have all had superstitions. To some, it can mean anything from wearing a lucky hat, shirt, dress, etc., to a ritual like bouncing the ball three times before each free throw in a basketball game, to the cultural ones like knocking on wood, not letting a black cat cross your path, or avoiding walking under ladders.

Take the number 13; some cultures are so convinced this number is unlucky that they refuse to label any floor in a building the 13th floor. So even if the floor you are on is indeed the 13th floor, in that building, they have conveniently re-classified it as the 14th and gone up from there. In 1911 the term triskaidekaphobia was coined, which is loosely defined as a phobia where you try to avoid all things numbered 13 to evade bad luck.

Yet just in the past week, with the Powerball lottery jackpot exceeding a billion dollars for the first time, the news reported that 13 and 14 (which becomes the 13th floor in buildings that have no floor labeled the 13th) were two of the most common numbers drawn in the history of Powerball.

So why do we fall victim to superstitions? As philosopher Bertrand Russell was fond of saying, “Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” Though I like his reasoning, we now know there are more scientific reasons available to us that explain them today.

One of the reasons we are prone to falling for the allure of superstitions is simply the way our brains are wired. Our brains love to be right. As a result, any thought we put into our head has a bias in its favor. If you think a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, you are going to remember all the bad things that happen in the hours and even days after that black cat crossed your path. This will reinforce, with evidence, that when a black cat crosses your path, bad things happen to you.

But what if you think black cats crossing your path is good luck? Now your brain will be looking for and remembering all of the good things that happened to you after it crossed your path, in the hours and days that follow. The mind will always find a way to weave a tale to prove that its belief is indeed correct, whether it is or not.

As Spanish writer and poet, Jose Bergamin, said, “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” This is a great analogy on how our brains automatically behave. As soon as we believe something, we exclusively look for confirming evidence for that belief. Even worse is the fact that we also minimize any disconfirming evidence we come across for that belief. This all happens automatically and usually completely outside of our awareness.

One reason people turn to superstitious behavior is to facilitate goal achievement. Studies have confirmed that performance goals are more likely to elicit superstitious behavior than learning goals. One other interesting finding (to me at least) was that as the uncertainty of goal achievement increased, superstitious behavior increased when participants pursued performance goals, but not learning goals. This fits with my findings regarding the different mindsets that I refer to as ‘Look-Goods’ vs. ‘Get-Betters.’

When you trust in and rely on your preparation you soon learn, through direct experience, what few ever realize: That luck and superstition are never involved in the process. Luck is simply how we interpret situations where preparation meets up with opportunity.


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc


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