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Magical Thinking

Why Even Some Smart People Are Superstitious

Hidden benefits of magical thinking

The White House, Public Domain
Source: The White House, Public Domain

National Geographic reports, "It's been estimated that $800 or $900 million is lost in U.S. business on Friday the 13th because people will not fly or do business they would normally do."

Superstitiousness is far from limited to Friday the 13th. A Forbes review of polls reported these:

  • A Gallup poll began by asking, “Some people are superstitious and try to behave in such a way as to avoid bad luck or jinxing themselves, and others are not. How superstitious are you?” 25% said they were at least somewhat superstitious.
  • The follow-up questions revealed that 24% are superstitious about knocking on wood, 13% about a black cat crossing a path, 12% about walking under a ladder, 11% about breaking a mirror, 9% about the number 13.
  • A Harris Poll found that 75% of those polled believe in miracles, 44% in ghosts, 31% in witches, 31% in astrology. A National Opinion Research Center question found that 31% thought astrology was “very” or “sort of” scientific. That despite overwhelming evidence that astrology lacks predictive validity.

Why are people superstitious?

Today, when science and rational thought are deified, why are many people still superstitious? And as University of Chicago behavioral scientist Jane Risen documents, "Superstitions are not limited to individuals with mental deficits. More than half of surveyed Americans, for example, admit to knocking on wood and almost one in four avoid walking under ladders (CBS News, 2012). Approximately one-third of surveyed college students regularly engage in exam-related superstitions (Albas & Albas, 1989.")

A number of factors may explain:

Nobelist Daniel Kahnemann, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, attributes belief in superstition to lazy thinking: It’s easier to believe in superstition than to do the hard thinking about probabilities. Risen agrees, adding that even when a person rationally concludes a superstition is invalid, they may "acquiesce."

The question is why? Here are some possibilities.

  • Most people seek pleasure. It’s fun to believe in something irrational. Rationality is cold, no-nonsense. Magical thinking is, well, magical.
  • It’s an easy way to increase the feeling you're in control. If you believe that not walking under a ladder will ensure safety, you thus, with little effort, feel you’ve improved your life. That's far easier than being a vegan.
  • I’ve never met a superstitious person who was certain their superstitions were valid. Typically, they defend being superstitious by arguing that there’s little to lose and just maybe something to gain.

Dangerous superstitions

Alas, there are downsides to some superstitions. For example, If you believe in miracles, it could make you passive, waiting for divine intervention. Particularly worrisome to me, Christian Science encourages its faithful to focus on prayer rather than medical care. And horrifically, some people in Africa believe that having sex with a baby will ward off AIDS.

The takeaway

If you’re at all superstitious, has it been a net positive or net negative for you? Do you want to adopt or relinquish any superstitions?

More from Marty Nemko Ph.D.
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