Superstition

SuperstitionI remember when I was about 8 or 9, I used to have certain beliefs or ideas that I might now classify as ‘superstitious’. I used to have a pair of blue shorts that I would always wear before watching my favorite football team play. I used to genuinely believe that not wearing those shorts could affect the outcome of the game. There was another superstitious belief that I used to hear unusually often as a child, and it goes like this. If you say something that compliments another person, you must quickly knock on wood to prevent bad luck that might occur to this person otherwise. I suspect that these beliefs originated as a form of false cause and effect.

As I grew up, I became less superstitious, and now I’m not superstitious at all. I always thought that most people were like me, that superstition to them was just a phase that they passed through in childhood and only a small number of them would continue to be superstitious well into their adult years. It turns out I was very wrong.

At first, the realization came from people around me. I realized that a good number of them would be considered a little superstitious, and when I decided to look for the research on this subject, I found that a psychologist from Connecticut College by the name of Stuart Vyse reported that over half of all Americans were at at least a little superstitious. I’ve had arguments with quite a good number of superstitious people about their irrational beliefs. Most would talk about events that have either happened to them or people they know and would claim these as powerful evidence. Others would only reply with the, “Well, you can’t prove that I’m wrong”, response. While it is true that you can never prove that superstitious beliefs are false, it is up to them to prove to you that their beliefs are true.

I won’t however waste too much time thinking about whether these superstitions bare any truth, I don’t think they do and unless something or someone proves me wrong, I won’t change that stance. It would be interesting to find out why so many people are superstitious in the first place. Psychologists have tackled this question before, and the most resounding argument is that they feel it is a way of assuming more control over their lives. People who don’t feel independent or in control of their lives turn to superstition as a way of gaining more control.

In my case, I would watch the game in my blue shorts, and perhaps would notice a kind of non-existent pattern. Perhaps it was my way of trying to get involved in something I couldn’t possibly influence. I suspect many superstitions originated that way. People might feel a lack of control over particular outcomes and may want to feel like that they have more control than they do, and therefore, resort to superstition. I find this explanation attractive because it’s not difficult to be able to generalize it to several different situations where people are primarily motivated by the need for more control.

Of course, a number of other factors can also be good reasons. Occupation, religion, and culture can all be powerful reasons for why people are superstitious. Someone who’s job is to be a trader might find superstitious thinking rather attractive because it removes some of the randomness and obscurity that comes with the markets. The reason we try to avoid randomness has been explained really well by a number of different authors. The premise is that we don’t like randomness because we are wired to like patterns and cause and effect. Stories have these traits and we are better at remembering things presented in story form than as unrelated blocks of information.

Our brains are evolutionary wired in a way to look for cause and effect. We respond and remember stories because more parts of our brain relating to senses and emotions are activated when we’re told a story as opposed to being presented with purely abstract data. This response to story telling explains why we cause and effect comes so naturally to us. There’s an automatic process that happens in our minds even at an early age where we try to explain everything around us in terms of stories.

A trader then creates his own ritual to deal with these forces of randomness. You can imagine engineers being more resistant to superstitious belief for the opposite reason. The second factor I can think of is religion. It’s obvious to see why. Religion teaches people to believe things that are beyond scientific verification and thus enables a superstitious way of thinking. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if there was a positive correlation between the most religious countries and the most superstitious countries.

The third is culture. This relates to history and tradition more than anything else. Anecdotes and superstitious tales are passed down from generation to generation and if not questioned or thought about critically, will continue to pass down to future generations. The reason why I think culture is a factor is because the type of superstitious beliefs depends a lot on the region in question.

Is superstition a bad thing? I wouldn’t think so. At least not necessarily. If people have a superstitious belief that would help them to mentally overcome anxiety and fear, then there’s nothing wrong with being superstitious. But if it’s holding them back from doing something, in other other words, if it’s the cause of their anxiety and fear, then I think it’s debilitating and should be given a lot of serious attention.

There are usually two sides to this debate. One side would advocate superstition while the opposition or the skeptics would criticize it. In the past, I would be found on the opposing side. What I’ve realized is there is really only one good reason to be involved in an argument of this nature. If the person you are arguing with is superstitious and his beliefs are clearly negatively affecting their lives and those around them, then you should definitely try to talk them out of it. You might not succeed, but you might cause them to be more open to questioning their beliefs in the future.

If you’re arguing with someone who’s superstitious but his belief is either affecting them positively or not affecting them at all, then there’s no good reason to argue. Your argument, cannot but have a negative affect on them if it has any effect at all. This, of course, presumes that you care about the person you’re arguing with. If you didn’t, then you should argue no matter what.

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2 thoughts on “Superstition

  1. While I agree with your general analysis, I believe that it’s not true that we shouldn’t argue with those we care about. Removing superstition from your life actually gives you more control when you understand that there is no mysterious or external power affecting outcomes..

  2. Thank you for your comment. It may be true that removing superstition can be practically beneficial for some people, but I personally see no reason to believe that it will be so for all people.

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