Superstition: Quirky Beliefs or Psychopathology?
Research suggests a correlation between superstition and clinical symptomology.
Posted Dec 23, 2017
Superstitious beliefs and behaviors are not often considered to be particularly concerning aspects of human nature. Avoiding walking under ladders, fearing a broken mirror will lead to seven years of bad luck, hopping over cracks in the sidewalk as to not risk “breaking your mother’s back”; these are a few examples of widespread cultural phenomenon that, despite being widely engaged in, are generally viewed as quite harmless, akin to fairy tales or old wives tales, stories passed on from generation to generation which speak more to culture and less to individual pathology or personality.
Is that the whole story? Admittedly it is my own self-identification as a highly superstitious person that brought me to a curiosity about what makes some people superstitious and not others. I can vividly remember a conversation at the dinner table, when I was around 9 years old, talking about my 16 year-old brother and whether he would pass his driver’s test. “He’ll pass...knock on wood,” my dad cracked, with the rest of the table gladly obliging. Thoroughly confused, I was informed that knocking on wood ensures that you don’t “jinx” something you really want to happen. Rather than question the logic of this deeply illogical practice, I latched on. I knocked on a lot of wood after that.
I probably didn’t even question behaviors like this in myself until years later, when a particularly unsympathetic friend refused to rescind his comment that my baseball team, up by two runs in the ninth inning, would definitely win the game. “Knock on wood! Take it back! You’re going to jinx it!” I hollered desperately. He was incredulous, and unwavering. “What I say has no impact on the game. Knocking on wood has no impact on the game. It’s entirely unrelated.” Logically, I knew he was right. Yet the mere idea of making a statement as definitive as he had felt wrong somehow, and as he pushed me to do so to prove his point, I found a familiar feeling creeping in – anxiety. And this was just baseball! My superstition was doing something for me- reducing anxiety- and perhaps making me feel that I had some control over something when I in fact had none. I began to wonder about the relationship between superstition and anxiety.
As it turns out, studies have shown associations between endorsement of superstitious beliefs and a wide range of symptomology, including anxiety, depression, poor personality functioning, and more severe disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Schizophrenia (Garcia et al, 2008; Tobacyk & Shrader, 1991; Zebb & Moore, 2003). This still leaves open the question- why? Are my superstitious behaviors causing me anxiety? Or is there something fundamental to the construct of superstition that is similarly fundamental to the construct of anxiety (and possibly other pathologies)?
To get to the bottom of this, I wanted to get a grasp on what is superstition and what is not. While defining superstition may seem easy enough, the construct is in fact somewhat heterogeneous, and is not operationally defined across research studies. Broadly, superstition can be defined as the tendency of an individual to “persistently or repeatedly behave as if his [or her] subjective estimate of the result of that behavior is significantly difference from an objective (scientific) estimate of the effect of that behavior (Scheibe & Sarbin, 1965, p.145). In other words, a superstition is the belief that specific actions will directly influence an outcome in ways that go against scientific knowledge or logical procession (like my belief that declaring my team would win before the game was over would somehow ensure their defeat). It is, in effect, an illusory correlation between two phenomena that are in fact uncorrelated. Ultimately, the purpose of superstitious behavior or thought is to either avoid an undesirable outcome or cause a desirable one.
More significantly, particularly in humans, the adoption of assumptions lacking in causal evidence seems to be an attempt to reduce the uncertainty of having no theory of how a particular mechanism works.
Uncertainty is regarded as an aversive state which humans are highly motivated to reduce (Bar-Anon, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2009). Furthermore, evidence shows that uncertainty about the cause of events is closely related to perceived lack of control, in that lacking sufficient knowledge or understanding of one’s environment contributes to feeling an inability to control or manipulate one’s environment. Both uncertainty and perceived lack of control are closely associated with depressive symptomology (Edwards & Weary, 1998). It is here that we start to see how superstitious beliefs might be indicative of, or at least associated with, problematic pathology.
Given that the uncertainty of not knowing is experienced as aversive, the drive to reduce that uncertainty, to gain back some level of perceived control, is therefore quite strong, perhaps strong enough that we are willing to accept explanations or causal mechanisms which have little foundation in fact or logic in the absence of more plausible explanations. Many beliefs, while in fact assumptions rather than empirically supported theories, are usually drawn from related observations which, while not infallible, are grounded in logical scientific evidence. For example, the animal that assumes that consumption of a particular food source caused a subsequent illness, while lacking certain evidence, is making a highly plausible assumption which adheres to the law of nature. However, superstition is the belief that a particular behavior or occurrence has an effect on the world that is significantly discrepant from a reasonable logical or scientific estimation. People are willing to believe in false associations between events which are seemingly unrelated (e.g., wearing lucky socks and hitting a home run) in a desperate attempt to gain an illusion of control (Carlson et al, 2009). This suggests that superstition functions as a means of reducing the stressful, anxiety- provoking state of having lack of control or certainty about how one’s environment works (Vyse, 1997). In providing some means of understanding for otherwise inexplicable aspects of our environment, superstitions help us to understand our world and therefore be better able to control it, particularly in situations which may be threatening or represent the possibility for great positive gain or major loss.
Pinning down some of the processes which underlie both anxiety as a state and superstition as a behavior or belief brought up a new question: how does this all relate to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)? As I explored superstition, I found it bore remarkable similarity to OCD. The superstitious person might rub a rabbit’s foot before an exam for luck (erroneously believing the two are related), just as someone diagnosed with OCD may turn a door knob a certain number of times to protect their family from harm (erroneously believing the two are related). It is clear that not everyone who engages in superstition-driven behaviors meets criteria for OCD, so what differentiates the two?
A preliminary exploration indicates that OCD, particularly the compensatory compulsive behaviors, is widely understood as an expression of a high need for perceived control and an attempt to establish a sense of lacking or lost control. It seems that these behaviors develop in part due to Thought- Action Fusion (TAF), a sort of illusory correlation which grants equivalency to the act of thinking about something and actually doing it. An individual may become preoccupied with the thought that he or she’s significant other will be in a plane crash, feeling as though simply having the thought that it may happen makes the likelihood of it actually happen increase. The mistaken correlation between thought and action is akin to the the error in logical or scientific thinking that occurs when one beliefs their superstitious behaviors will have an impact on unrelated events in the world.
While superstition and OCD are undoubtedly similar, they clearly differ in scale and negative clinical impact. One suggestion as to the reason for this is an inflated sense of responsibility associated with ones (imagined) ability to impact the external world through thoughts or behaviors that produces higher level of anxiety and discomfort associated with the intrusive thoughts. In this case, likelihood TAF (“Having a thought about something increases the likelihood that it will happen”) and moral TAF (“Having a thought about something is morally equivalent to acting on that thought”) seem to merge, in that individuals may believe that their thoughts are equivalent to behaviors, that thoughts can increase the likelihood of external events, and that they MUST control their thoughts and that it is their responsibility to do so, thereby increasing their symptoms over time (Salkovskis et al, 2009). This inflated sense of responsibility induces a moral obligation to control outcomes which is associated with increased anxiety and distress levels to a point beyond those seen in superstition.
Digging into the relationship between superstition and clinically-impactful symptomology only brings up more questions and roads of inquiry to walk down. There seems to be more nuance to the question of whether superstitious behavior increases anxiety by reinforcing it, or decreases it by establishing some control. Is being superstitious a sub-clinical presentation of OCD, or are they similar but ultimately discrepant constructs? Hopefully more research and attention to this topic will give us increased insight into these complex questions (knock on wood).
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