By Dr Penny Morgan
As a scientist, Penny has dealt with empirical facts all her life. In this article she explores just what it is that drives people to hold superstitious beliefs, and why women may be more superstitious than men.
Superstitious thinking, or magical thinking (a phrase much in vogue), is the belief that unrelated events are causally connected, despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them, especially as a result of alleged supernatural effects. In 1948, a classic study by the American psychologist and behaviourist B.F. Skinner was the first to empirically investigate superstitious behaviour. He used eight pigeons to demonstrate that when they were fed on a fixed time schedule of 15 seconds (that is, they were fed regardless every 15 seconds – a non-contingent feeding schedule), six of the birds developed what was interpreted to be superstitious behaviour. They exhibited behaviours that were not contingent upon the rewards – head-swinging, pecking, circling, etc. This behaviour increased with each reinforcement, even though the behaviour had not caused the reinforcement. This was, Skinner believed, an instance of operant conditioning employing superstitious behaviour. His results have been challenged but seem, by and large, to have held up. The pigeons demonstrated that they had made a non-causal or non-contingent connection between their behaviour and subsequent reward, when the reward would have occurred whatever they did or did not do. Is this similar to human belief in superstitions, and adoption of superstitious behaviour? It seems to be a universal cognitive process, shared by us and pigeons alike – an error in thinking. Maybe we are hard-wired for ‘magical thinking’, atheist or not. In common with non-human animals, we tend to look for one rule or explanation as to what has just happened.
Superstition and religion
It has been suggested that magic and religion share similar fundamental ontologies. Both appear to rely on supernatural forces called upon to influence unpredictable factors and reduce uncertainty.
For example, four out of five professional athletes report engaging in at least one superstitious behaviour prior to performance. In sport, superstitions have been shown to reduce tension and provide a sense of control over unpredictable, chance factors. By reducing anxiety, they may actually improve performance.
Magical beliefs are separated into, on the one hand, institutionalised magical beliefs in various religions and, on the other, a set of non-institutionalised magical beliefs. The institutionalised beliefs include notions of God and other spiritual beings, and particular rituals and practices that are believed by the practitioners to have sacred values and which exercise certain causal powers to bring about meaningful change, such as healing the sick and other ‘miracles’. The central role of some sort of deity and the role of sacred values appear to provide a distinct form of causality that may serve to differentiate religious thinking from magical thinking. And yet, religious beliefs and magical thinking seem inextricably entwined.
At worst, superstitions can descend into black magic. In the Indian state of Maharashtra, a law was introduced to criminalise practices related to black magic, including human sacrifices. The law, with a long and turbulent passage through the legislature including the murder of one of its promoters, was criticised as being anti-Hindu and anti-religious (see reference 1).
“Part of the reason why women are more superstitious than men is that women feel, even in today's modern society, that they have less control over their fate than men do.”
Superstition and locus of control
Are there any parallels between wishes, spells and prayers? All may involve some form of incantation, perhaps differing only in the entity being called upon to act. Stuart Vyse, author of The Psychology of Superstition, believes that our typical ‘locus of control’ can also be a factor contributing to whether or not we are superstitious. If you have an internal locus of control, you may believe that you are in charge of everything, that you are the master of your fate and that you can make things happen. If you have an external locus of control, then ‘you're buffeted by life, and things happen to you instead of the other way around’ according to Vyse. People with an external locus of control are more likely to be superstitious, possibly as a way of getting more power over their lives. ‘Part of the reason why women are more superstitious than men is that women feel, even in today's modern society, that they have less control over their fate than men do.’ (See reference 2)
Superstition and uncertainty
Bronisław Malinowski, the Polish-British anthropologist who studied the Trobriand Islanders of the Pacific near Papua New Guinea, argued that magical beliefs and superstitious behaviour help fill the ‘void of the unknown’ and help provide an illusory sense of control. This, in turn, can reduce anxiety.
An example is provided by the contrast between safer and abundant fishing in the inner lagoon where the island fishermen rely on skill and knowledge, and no magic rituals exist. By contrast, in the open-sea which is full of danger and uncertainty, there are extensive magic rituals to secure safety and good luck. This may be why levels of superstition increase at times of uncertainty like wars. During the years 1917–1940, economic variables in Germany correlated positively with the number of articles on astrology, mysticism and cults in periodicals. Superstitions appear to be more prevalent in conditions of insecurity, threat and fear – a coping mechanism, perhaps. For example, there was an increase in belief in conspiracy theories during the unprecedented period of uncertainty caused by the Covid pandemic.
Superstitious behaviour may sometimes tip over into OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour) or there may be some overlap between the two. OCD rituals are performed with the aim of reducing anxiety connected with the obsessive thoughts. However, if the link is there, it’s not straightforward.
Jesper Sorensen (2007), a scholar of religion, has suggested that although magic is involved in most religious rituals, religion covers a much wider range of human behaviour than magic. He believes it is also likely that the nature of this overlap is highly dependent on the particular culture and religion. It has been argued that superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs should all be viewed as ‘category mistakes’. Nonetheless, if the cost of maintaining a superstition is low (not walking under a ladder, knocking on wood, offering up a prayer), why tempt fate? Superstitious behaviour is more likely when the cost of the superstition is low relative to perceived benefits.
If the expectation of security and anxiety reduction are the benefits gained from superstitious behaviour/belief, could this be considered a placebo effect?
The Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013.
Vyse, S. The Psychology of Superstition. Also Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.
Malinowski, B. (1948) Magic, Science and Religion and other essays. Beacon Press, Boston, Mass.
Sorensen, J. (2007). A Cognitive Theory of Magic. Altamira Press.