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Turning over a new belief: The psychology of superstition

According to Stuart Vyse in his book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, the fallibility of human reason is the greatest single source of superstitious belief. Sometimes referred to as a belief in “magic”, superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers, and/or sayings, as well as a belief in astrology, the occult, the paranormal, or ghosts. It was reported by Colin Campbell in the British Journal of Sociology, that approximately one third of the U.K. population are superstitious. The most often reported superstitious behaviours are (i) avoiding walking under ladders, (ii) touching wood, and (iii) throwing salt over one’s shoulder.

My background is in the gambling studies field, so as far as I am concerned, no superstitions are based on facts but are based on what I would call ‘illusory correlations’ (e.g., noticing that the last three winning visits to the casino were all when you wore a particular item of clothing or it was on a particular day of the week). While the observation may be fact-based (i.e., that you did indeed wear a particular piece of clothing), the relationship is spurious.

Superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers, and/or sayings. A working definition within our Western society could be a belief that a given action can bring good luck or bad luck when there are no rational or generally acceptable grounds for such a belief. In short, the fundamental feature underlying superstitions is that they have no rational underpinnings.

There is also a stereotypical view that there are certain groups within society who tend to hold more superstitious beliefs than what may be considered the norm. These include those involved with sport, the acting profession, miners, fishermen, and gamblers – many of whom will have superstitions based on things that have personally happened to them or to those they know well. Again, these may well be fact-based but the associations they have experienced will again be illusory and spurious. Most individuals are basically rational and do not really believe in the effects of superstition. However, in times of uncertainty, stress, or perceived helplessness, they may seek to regain personal control over events by means of superstitious belief.

One explanation for how we learn these superstitious beliefs has been suggested by the psychologist B.F. Skinner and his research with pigeons. He noted in a 1948 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, that while waiting to be fed, pigeons adopted some peculiar behaviours. The birds appeared to see a causal relationship between receiving the food and their own preceding behaviour. However, it was merely coincidental conditioning. There are many analogies in the human world – particularly among gamblers. For instance, if a gambler blows on the dice during a game of craps and subsequently wins, the superstitious belief is reinforced through the reward of winning. Another explanation is that as children we are socialized into believing in magic and superstitious beliefs. Although many of these beliefs dissipate over time, children also learn by watching and modelling their behaviour on that of others. Therefore, if their parents or peers touch wood, carry lucky charms, and do not walk under ladders, then children are more likely to imitate that behaviour, and some of these beliefs may be carried forward to later life.

In a paper published in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, Peter Darke and Jonathan Freedman (1997) suggested that lucky events are, by definition, determined entirely by chance. However, they go on to imply that, although most people would agree with this statement on an intellectual level, many do not appear to behave inaccordance with this belief. In his book Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour, Willem Wagenaar (1988) proposed that in the absence of a known cause we tend to attribute events to abstract causes like luck and chance. He goes on to differentiate between luck and chance and suggests that luck is more related to an unexpected positive result whereas chance is related to surprising coincidences.

Bernard Weiner, in his book An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion, suggests that luck may be thought of as the property of a person, whereas chance is thought to be concerned with unpredictability. Gamblers appear to exhibit a belief that they have control over their own luck. They may knock on wood to avoid bad luck or carry an object such as a rabbit’s foot for good luck. Ellen Langer argued in her book The Psychology of Control that a belief in luck and superstition cannot only account for causal explanations when playing games of chance, but may also provide the desired element of personal control.

In my own research (with Carolyn Bingham) into superstition among bingo players published in the Journal of Gambling Issues, it was clear that a large percentage of bingo players we surveyed reported beliefs in luck and superstition. However, the findings were varied, with a far greater percentage of players reporting everyday superstitious beliefs rather than beliefs concerned with bingo. Whether or not players genuinely believed they had control over luck is unknown. Having superstitious beliefs may be simply part of the thrill of playing.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Campbell, C. (1996). Half-belief and the paradox of ritual instrumental activism: A theory of modern superstition. British Journal of Sociology, 47(1), 151–166.

Darke, P. R., & Freedman, J. L. (1997). Lucky events and beliefs in luck: Paradoxical effects on confidence and risk-taking. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 378–388.

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2005). A study of superstitious beliefs among bingo players. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13. Located at: http://jgi.camh.net/index.php/jgi/article/view/3680/3640

Langer, E. J. (1983). The psychology of control. London: Sage.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). “Superstition” in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168–172.

Thalbourne, M.A. (1997). Paranormal belief and superstition: How large is the association? Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 91, 221–226.

Vyse, S. A. (1997). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wagenaar, W. A. (1988). Paradoxes of gambling behaviour. London: Erlbaum.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag