Superstition (Stuart A. Vyse, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition:

Stuart Vyse [Author, Psychologist, & Teacher]
Stuart Vyse [Author, Psychologist, & Teacher]

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines superstition as “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.

In a 1956 essay, psychiatrist Judd Marmor proposed a definition of superstition: “beliefs or practices groundless in themselves and inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by the community to which one belongs.”

Although everyday experience suggests that superstitious beliefs and behavior are widespread, it is probably impossible to determine accurately the extent of their popularity. Undoubtedly many believers are reluctant to confess their superstitions for fear of ridicule. Furthermore, some superstitions are exercised infrequently or in private, making it difficult to observe them directly. Superstitious behavior is as widespread and various as humanity itself.

Superstitions Forming Part of a Cosmology or Coherent Worldview

Some behavioral scientists believe that all religion is superstitious, a misguided faith born of ignorance. Others hold that only “pagan” religion, with its magical rites and rituals, is superstitious. Although science and religion have traditionally been cast as antagonists, in reality they speak different languages. Religious faith exists without need of proof, while science is built upon proof. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould adopted a similar view when he described science and religion as two “non-overlapping magisteria” (abbreviated as NOMA) both leading to profound but differing fields of knowledge. For our purposes, this means that basic questions about the existence of god or heaven do not fall within the domain of science because they are inherently untestable. Anyone who adopts these beliefs must take them “on faith.”

Other Socially Shared Superstitions

The great majority of superstitions come to us as part of our culture. People teach us rules, such as “black cats bring bad luck,” that were once taught to them. Many of these rules are concerned with important human events: birth, marriage, illness, and death. A number of popular and scholarly books catalogue these common superstitions—for example, Anthon Cannon assembled a list of 13,207 superstitions and folk beliefs indigenous to the state of Utah. With cultural superstitions, the primary challenge for psychology is to identify the factors that influence our acceptance and explain why these beliefs persist in the face of conflicting evidence.

“Occult” Experiences of Individuals

Many people accept the validity of ESP and communication with the dead. Assuming they are not supported by science, mere endorsement of these things represents paranormal belief, but if you actually employ these ideas in your life—for example, to communicate with your deceased grandmother—then by our definition these occult beliefs would be superstitious. In the case of ESP, we are particularly fortunate because the scientific community has given it considerable attention.

In the late 19th century, societies of “parapsychology” were established in Britain and the United States, and soon a number of parapsychological laboratories began investigating such phenomena as mental telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis. From 1935 to 1965, Duke University maintained a famous department of parapsychology, and in 1969 the Parapsychology Association was admitted to membership in the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Yet despite its outward appearance as a reputable science, parapsychology has failed the crucial test. Years of research have produced no conclusive support for the existence of ESP; many of the studies have contained serious methodological flaws, or have produced results impossible to replicate. Therefore, ESP is either paranormal or superstitious, depending upon the role it plays in the believer’s life. Other experiences that fall into this category are ghosts, haunted houses, poltergeists, and premonitions.

Personal Superstitions

The last category includes superstitions held only by an individual. This encompasses a large group of beliefs and actions that are neither learned from nor taught to others. Wade Boggs’s pre-game ritual is an example, as are the lucky shirts, hats, numbers, and colors common to athletes, gamblers, businesspeople, and others. Although this classification scheme provides a simple lexicon of superstition, it is not without inconsistencies. For example, many superstitions—not just Jahoda’s “socially shared” category—are at least partially shaped by social influence. The mere popularity of lucky hats and other magical clothing belie a social or cultural contribution to personal superstitions, and many reported occult experiences also share common elements. Superstitious beliefs of all kinds are undoubtedly encouraged by a social environment rich in believers. Nevertheless, these categories help to structure the discussion that follows…

THE SUPERSTITIOUS PERSON

For any given individual, feelings about superstition may range from complete rejection to total endorsement, and the people who fall at opposite ends of this continuum may differ in other important ways.

Common folk wisdom holds that a number of subcultures are by nature particularly superstitious. These people are said to practice superstitions that are either unique to, or characteristic of, their group.

The reputation of superstitiousness extends to a variety of sports, both professional and nonprofessional. Other traditionally superstitious groups include gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors, and, somewhat surprisingly, college students.

The popularity of sport combined with the fact that its participants are a traditionally superstitious group make athletes, particularly professional athletes, the most famous of all superstitious people.

College students are not famous for their superstitions. In fact, conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers. Yet superstition is frequently associated with fear of failure, and when it comes to examinations, many college students are genuinely fearful.

Gamblers

Most games of chance are just that. Their outcomes are random events, completely out of the player’s control. The lottery player cannot will a “lucky number” to come up; the roulette player has no power over the spinning ball. Nevertheless, many gamblers act as though they were playing games of skill. In some games, such as blackjack and draw poker, the player uses a strategy to decide when it is best to draw a card and when it is not. Furthermore, by understanding the odds, one can become a skillful bettor. But most gambling games do not involve skill.

Yet gambling is as old as human civilization itself. It was popular in ancient Egypt, Persia, China, India, Greece, and Rome. In England, dice-playing appeared during the Roman occupation, and by the 18th century gambling had been institutionalized in public gaming houses. Historically, many gamblers have put faith in “luck” and the belief that chance events are, to some extent, under their control. Today similar beliefs are found in various “systems”—some published in popular books—for winning the lottery or betting on horse races, as well as in many personal and social superstitions of the gambling subculture.

Craps is a game of pure chance. There is no skill involved in throwing dice. The movements of the clicking, tumbling cubes conform only to the laws of physics and probability, and as long as the dice are not weighted or rigged, every throw is a random event.

The influence of social structure on superstition

Students, athletes, and gamblers are social groups that involve varying degrees of group activity. The differing social structures of these groups parallel the kinds of superstitions they adopt. Group activities produce socially shared superstitions.

THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF SUPERSTITION

Athletes, college students, and gamblers provide interesting examples of superstition among narrowly defined social groups, but they are also relatively small segments of the population. What about the rest of us? Who are the most and least superstitious among us?

Gender

A large number of studies have shown that women are more superstitious and have greater belief in paranormal phenomena than men. Gender differences in belief in superstition and the paranormal are also common among college students, as well as other groups; however, there are some exceptions.

Age

Many studies of age differences have shown that older people are more skeptical than young people, but others have found the opposite relationship… Taken in total, the relationship between age and superstitious or paranormal beliefs appears to be complicated; it is safest to say that, at this time, no general statement can be made about age on magical beliefs.

Education

Obviously, education does not make one immune to superstitious or paranormal beliefs. Indeed, most published studies of paranormal belief have used college students as subjects. Yet we might expect that higher education, particularly in the sciences, would lead to increased critical thinking and greater skepticism. The research on this point is somewhat mixed, but there is some evidence that formal education does lead to skepticism. In addition, there is evidence that certain academic fields are associated with greater skepticism than others. Although research suggests that education plays an antagonistic role in relation to superstition and the paranormal, the results are not clear cut.

Religion

There are some similarities between religious and superstitious belief. Although one is celestial and the other terrestrial, both can involve an act of faith. As we have seen, even the scientifically minded person must oft en trust an educated authority. Furthermore, the border between these concepts is blurred when religious groups promote testable practices, such as faith healing, that fall within the domain of science. The evidence suggests there is a relationship between religious and paranormal belief, but it is complicated.

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The entire book can be read here: