Learn what scientists say about aliens, Bigfoot, fortune tellers, ghosts, monsters, UFOs, and other strange things.

Sciency websites

From Abracadabra to Zombies

superstitionsound icon

In a nutshell: Superstitions are beliefs about the power of things to bring about good or bad when there's no logical or scientific evidence for the belief.

A superstition is a belief that something can cause good or bad to happen when there's no scientific or logical reason for believing it.

It's bad luck to be superstitious!It seems that everybody is superstitious about something. Ask anyone if they would wear a sweater worn by somebody who has done the worst evil thing you can imagine. Even though there is no rational or logical reason for believing that an evil person's sweater would feel any different from any other sweater, most people don't want to even come near the sweater of someone they think is evil.

Even grownups who think they are not superstitious will get chills or a good feeling when they touch something that belonged to someone they greatly admire. There is no logical or scientific reason why anything touched by anyone you admire should have any special effect on you. Yet, people will go to great lengths to get an autograph or to visit the home where someone they think is great was born or used to live.

The world does not divide up into the ones who are superstitious and the ones who are not superstitious. We're all superstitious, but not always about the same things. We might laugh when we read about people who used to beat their drums to make the moon give back the sun during an eclipse. But they'd probably laugh at us for trying to touch a rock star or for buying clothes with the name of some singer sewed into them.

man wearing rope necklace for good luckMany superstitions start by observing some things that happen by coincidence. You forgot to wash your socks before a baseball game and then you hit a home run. From now on you don't wash your socks before you play a game. You wore your blue sweater to school on the day you aced a test. Now the sweater is your "lucky sweater" and you wear it whenever you have a test. Instead of accepting that things happen by coincidence, we make one the cause of the other. If you stop to think about it, you know there's no logical reason dirty socks should help a baseball player hit a baseball. Wearing a sweater can't substitute for studying for a test.

Many athletes are superstitious. They'll wear twisted ropes around golfer wearing rubber band bracelet for lucktheir necks or rubber bands with holograms around their wrists. Why? Not because they think they look good in them, but because they think the ropes and rubber bands can improve their playing. Not likely, you might think. But, if the player really believes his necklace or bracelet helps him, it might relax him and put him in a good mood. Maybe he plays better when he's relaxed and in a good mood. So, magic jewelry might help some people sometimes, but only because of their superstition!

Some superstitions are due to magical thinking. Believing that something evil stays in the sweater of an evil person is type of magical thinking. Thinking that things that look alike share some sort of magical connection is also magical thinking. Just because a plant looks like a kidney doesn't mean it will be good medicine for kidney problems.

Some people think that if they make a doll to stand for some person they can help or hurt the person by helping or hurting the doll. Some people think you can help a person by doing acupuncture on a doll that stands in for the person. Some think that you can make a person feel it if you stick a pin in a doll that stands in for the person. These are examples of more magical thinking.

Magical thinking seems to be based on a belief that there is some sort of energy or essence that things can magically transfer to other things. There is no scientific basis for this belief. Yet, many people believe that once something has been somewhere or touched something it has left its mark on that place or thing. Superstitions about haunted houses seem to be based on this type of magical thinking.

Of course, if you believe someone can jinx you by sticking pins into a doll, your belief might make you nervous and upset you to the point where you actually get sick. (This is the negative side of the placebo effect and is called the nocebo effect. Nocebo means "I will harm" in Latin.)

Another kind of magical thinking involves belief in lucky and unlucky numbers because the words for the numbers sound like other words that have good or bad meanings. Four is an unlucky number in Japan, Korea, and Hawaii. The word for 4, shi, sounds like the word for death. In Cantonese, the word for "18" sounds similar to the word for "will definitely prosper." Some Cantonese think 18 is a lucky number.

If you have a test and want to do well on it, I advise you to study for it. Don't rely on your blue sweater to see you through. Also, that pencil you borrowed from the smartest kid in the class won't work any better than any other pencil.

As a research project, I suggest you try to find out where each of the following superstitions came from:

  1. A black cat crossing in front of you means you will have bad luck.
  2. Friday the 13th is an unlucky day.
  3. Spilling the salt will bring bad luck.
  4. A horseshoe with the open end pointing upward will bring good luck.
  5. Knocking on wood will protect you from something bad happening.
  6. Walking under a ladder is bad luck.
  7. Breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck.
  8. Opening an umbrella indoors will bring bad luck.
  9. A rabbit's foot brings good luck.
  10. Crossing your fingers will bring good luck.

Go to the feedback page and tell me your favorite superstition. I'll share it.

My favorite superstition is "bad luck comes in threes to people who can't count past three." OK. I made that up. But I think it's true.

Last updated 11-Sep-2011

back Home

previous staring effect | therapeutic touch next

Sciency Books