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The psychology of superstitions, explained

Superstitions are universal, and reveal a key conflict in how we think.

A Cleveland fan taunts Cubs fans, reminding them of their long-held superstitious “billy goat curse.”
Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

In November 1896, Popular Science reported on a “curious superstition held by young men.” It’s bonkers:

If one places a snake’s tongue upon the palm of his hand — beneath the glove — it will cause any girl, regardless of her previous indifference, to ardently return his passion if he [were able] to take her hand within his own.

People have been indulging in weird superstitions throughout history. It used to be customary to tell honeybees when there was a (human) death in the family … “Or they will die, or go away,” the Encyclopedia of Superstitions explains.

Or how about this one: In 1888, the Washington Post republished a bit on a “curious superstition” seen in London — “No marriage can be a happy one unless the bride has one hair of every member of her family sewn into the lining of her wedding gown,” the news briefing read. Every. Member. Gross!

These examples are antiquated, sure. But are they really any more absurd than the rituals Cubs fans are performing today with their team in the World Series for the first time since the 1940s? Consider:

  • The Chicago Sun-Times reports one 29-year-old sometimes refuses to scratch itches during games, for fear caving in will cause the Cubs to lose.
  • The Aurora Beacon-News in Illinois spoke to a family that “won't wash Cubs shirts or jerseys worn during a game until the team loses, when they wash off the bad luck.”
  • Scientific American talked to a 66-year-old fan who ritualistically shakes hands with his wife and another fan before the game starts.

(Also remember that the whole reason many Cubs fans believe their team hasn’t won in all these decades stems from a superstition: When a billy goat was booted from their stadium in 1945, its owner cursed the team.)

Superstitions are universal. No one is immune to them.

“Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults believe superstitions that they recognize are not rational,” Jane Risen, a University of Chicago Booth School of Business psychologist who studies superstitions and magical thinking, has written.

It sounds like a contradiction that we humans can be so smart but still succumb to superstition. But it’s not. In fact, it reveals a key conflict between the two ways our brains think.

Why are humans so prone to superstitious thought?

iDraw / Shutterstock

In 2013, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman published a book called Thinking Fast and Slow that popularized a growing theory in the psychological literature. The theory outlines two main channels, or “systems,” in which we think, and how the two of them interact can explain how superstitious thoughts originate and stick around.

The first way, called System 1, represents our immediate gut reactions to the world. It’s the part of our brain that thinks in stereotypes and makes snap judgments. In the case of superstitions, System 1:

A) Tries to find simple cause-and-effect outcomes to make sense of the world.

It makes us think things like: I wore this shirt the last time the Cubs won, so I should wear it again.

B) Begs us not to tempt fate.

System 1 is good at coming up with the worst possible scenario for our actions. And it is really sensitive to irony. “People report that a person is more likely to be rejected from his top-choice university if he presumptuously wears a t-shirt from that school while waiting for the decision,” Risen explains in her paper.

In the case of the Cubs, a superstitious person might think: The one time I don’t wear my Cubs shirt, they’ll absolutely lose.

C) Thrives on confirmation bias.

“When people think about their superstitious intuitions, they are likely to automatically retrieve examples from memory that support them,” Risen writes.

Confirmation bias fuels a cycle that empowers the superstition: The Cubs won because I wore the shirt. It is magic!

System 2 is the slower, rational brain that’s more grounded in objective facts.

System 2 ought to jump in to tell us: Don’t be stupid; ratty old T-shirts don’t win games. Players do. And you’re not a player. Not even close.

But the thing is, Risen argues in an academic review paper, we often willfully ignore System 2. That is, we cave in to superstitions even when we know they’re illogical. And there’s research (and common sense) to back this up.

Here’s one clear example: One study had participants throw darts at a board, and they were rewarded for their accuracy in hitting the bull’s-eye. The researchers found that even with the reward, people were less accurate at throwing darts when there was a picture of a baby on the dartboard, compared with when there was picture of Adolf Hitler. The darts wouldn’t cause harm to either person, obviously. But it’s hard not to feel superstitious about it.

Why we cave in to System 1 — and indulge in superstitions

In Risen’s view, we often “acquiesce”— or cave in to our System 1 thinking — even when we know it’s irrational, for a few simple reasons.

The costs of indulging superstitions are often low (not washing a T-shirt may be gross, but it’s not costly). Meanwhile, the cost of losing a game is horrific. So why not keep the shirt out of the laundry? What’s there to lose?

“Even people who report that a magic spell cannot cause damage are less willing to allow an experimenter to say a magic spell if their hand is at risk than if some other, less valuable object is at risk,” Risen writes.

Another is that if it’s really easy to imagine the bad thing happening, it’s just really hard to ignore the superstition. In the case of the Cubs, this is especially true: The Cubs never make it to the World Series; they haven’t won it in more than 100 years. It’s really easy to imagine them losing. And that makes it harder to not be superstitious.

How superstition either is enabled or disabled.
Psychological Review

There’s one more theory why superstitions endure despite our knowing better: They comfort us. They allow us to feel like we have some control over a chaotic world, even if our actions are meaningless. When so few things in the world are predictable, that’s an irresistible comfort. Superstitions don’t make us stupid; they make us human.