The Science of Superstitions and the People Who Believe Them

The belief in superstitions can be found in day to day life. From avoiding the number 13, to not walking under ladders, to crossing our fingers, and picking four leaf clovers, we can all find ourselves being influenced by one superstition or another. But why do people believe in superstition? To answer this question, Stuart Vyse talked with Hanna and Cari about his book “Superstition: A Very Short Introduction.”

Stuart Vyse’s Book

Stuart. Why don’t you tell us a little more about your educational and professional background?

I am a psychologist. I have a PhD in Psychology. I taught for many years at Connecticut College, but I’m retired now. I spend all my time writing magazine articles and books, but I am a psychologist who is interested primarily in the things that normal people do. I’m not the kind of psychologist who helps people with their problems, although I admire those people for doing that. I am really an experimental psychologist or a behavioral scientist, and I’m interested in why people do the things they do. I have seemed to have developed a specialty in the irrational things that people do. That’s how I ended up studying superstition.

Stuart Vyse

Why would a man of science write a book about magic, sorcery, delusion, and old wives?

I’m interested in why people do irrational things since we are such a sophisticated species. We have science, we have medicine, we have all these things that we’ve been able to do. We build cities and airplanes, and yet people believe in things that seem quite primitive. So to me, that paradox, that conflict, is interesting and worth looking into.

Does Crossing Your Fingers Really Bring Good Luck?

What is your book Superstition: A Very Short Introduction about?

It was actually quite a challenge to write, despite being a little, tiny book, because I had to step back and tell the whole history of superstition, how it started, and how it has changed over time. I provided a little catalog of some of the more popular superstitions and where their origins are, because people are always interested in that. And I had to say something about the psychology of superstition. Even though it was a little book, it was a much broader view of the whole topic from beginning to end. I felt quite honored to be given this assignment, because no one had ever done that before. There is no single book that covers the whole story of superstition from beginning to end. And this is just a little book, but it attempts to do that.

What is a superstitious belief?

A superstitious belief, in simple terms, is one that is not founded in our understanding of the natural world and not founded in science. The thing about superstitious beliefs is that they tend to be, first of all, about cause and effect relationships. They are about: if I do this, something good will happen, or if I don’t do this, something bad will happen. That’s your cause and effect, but the belief that underlies that action or that relationship is unfounded.

Picking a Four Leaf Clover for Good Luck

How did the number 13 gets such a bad rap?

The number 13 is thought to be the most widely held superstition worldwide, or at least the most widely known. Here’s the thing in terms of the origin of it – it gets a little controversial. I always have to say that there are at least three primary theories as to how 13 became unlucky. I believe that from the evidence I’ve read, one of them is true, but I’ll give you all three. The most common understanding of 13 is the last supper at which Jesus was betrayed and later crucified. The idea actually started out as a group of 13 people together or 13 people at a table; it was thought to be bad luck to have 13 people seated at a table. Eventually what happened was that 13 sort of got freed from the table and became bad luck in and of itself.

The other theories that have come out are there’s one involving Norse mythology. That is very similar. The idea that, again, this was a group of 12 gods that were having a party in Valhalla and the sort of mischievous God Loki initiated a circumstance in which the beloved God Baldor died. Another group of 13 that is similar to the last supper. The last theory involves a group of crusading Knights called the Knights Templar, who were arrested on October 13th and later were burned at the stake. There are these three different theories. I think there’s more support in terms of the evidence, in terms of records and documents, for the last supper theory. It’s become a big cultural phenomenon. Obviously, it’s hard to grow up in the Western culture without knowing about it.

One Theory is that Unlucky Number 13 Originated with Knights Templar and their Death

Do you find that most superstitions originate from a religious origin?

Many do. Sometimes nailing down the origin of a superstition is really difficult and somewhat speculative, because we really don’t know. In the case, for example, of walking under a ladder: one theory is that the ladder leaning against a building creates a triangle, which is reminiscent of the Trinity and that by walking under it, you disturb it. There are many superstitions that do come from religion. We forget from time to time is that people have personal superstitions. Athletes, students, or people have a lucky shirt or a lucky tie. People can create their own superstitions out of trial and error with something that seems to be lucky. And obviously that’s not a religious origin. That’s just a random sort of thing.

The Superstition of Ladders may have Originated with the Trinity

Is Halloween really just a time to party and have fun with your friends or do people really believe in some of the Halloween superstitions?

I think it’s mostly fun. And it’s also, by the way, a huge commercial boon. Apparently more money is spent on Halloween than almost any other Holiday. There probably are some people who still believe in the whole “souls being freed” thing. You can find someone who believes anything, including, for example, that the earth is flat. But I think mostly it’s fun.

Halloween Superstitions are Mostly Just For Fun

You’re kind of getting at something that I think is important to mention: many superstitions are of two minds. On one hand, we know it can’t be true. That’s the lucky rabbit’s foot; a lucky ritual that can’t really have a direct effect on whatever it is you’re hoping for, but we also sort of intuitively feel what’s the harm and I’ll feel better if I do it than if I don’t do it. On the other hand, there are some people who are true believers and they actually believe it’s real and they have to do it. But there is also a group, I think, in the middle who have it in their rational mind that they know that it doesn’t make sense and it can’t really work, but emotionally and intuitively, they feel better if they don’t do something. For example, schedule an operation on Friday the 13th or travel on Friday the 13th.

Halloween is the most revered holiday for witches and Wiccans, and Wiccan is a modern pagan religion. So how can you tell someone that their religion is only based on superstition? Wouldn’t that be the same as telling a Christian there is no God?

First of all, I don’t do that. I wouldn’t say that someone’s religion is based in superstition. There’s a difference between what I’m calling superstition, which is something that you do for a particular end. In other words, a superstition is aimed at a goal you want to perform better; you want something good to happen or to avoid bad. There are a number of beliefs that people have that are paranormal. Like for example, the existence of witches who can fly and do sorts of things. That’s a belief that is not supported by science, but it’s not a superstition. In a sense, you can think of the category as being paranormal beliefs – beliefs that are not consistent with science, and a subset of those are superstitions that are pragmatic; that have a goal to them.

The Science of Superstition
There is a Difference Between Superstitious and Paranormal Beliefs

There are certain beliefs in religion that I would call a superstition. For example, in the Christian religion, there are a lot of people who believe that Holy Water has magical powers, or that concentrated salt has magical powers, or that prayer can do things in the natural world. These are beliefs that are not based in evidence and they’re based in faith only. The beliefs that are out the natural world about whether something will bring about healing superstition, I would call those superstitions until there’s evidence to back up the fact that they work. The belief in God, or the belief in some kind of thing that is not testable by science, some people will choose to believe in those things. Others will not. They’re not consistent with science, but they’re also not testable. They’re not about the natural world in the same way. People are free to believe what they want to believe in that realm. But if they’re making claims about things here on earth that can be done through religion, then I would prefer a scientific test, and not willing to take that belief on faith.

Are there any superstitions that are harmful to people?

I think there are some, but I want to start by saying that the majority of them are not. I mean, most of the ones we’ve been talking about earlier are not greatly harmful. I’m not a fan of the negative superstitions. I think it’s sort of ridiculous that elevator panels skip the 13th floor and so forth. But in terms of lucky superstitions, generally speaking, they’re benign, and they may actually have a psychological benefit that they make the person feel better as they do it. There are, however, some things that I would consider a superstition that are potentially harmful. I would put some alternative medicines in that category, for example, homeopathic medicines. This is not a science-based belief. Those medicines are so diluted that they are basically placebos.

Homeopathic medicine is an old tradition. It started in the 19th century. They’re available at your local drug store, and they’re in the same section as if they look like real medicine, but they’re basically placebos. The theory, which is false, is that the stuff in the medicine is more powerful if it’s more diluted, and this, of course, goes directly against all we know about pharmacology. If people are going to use homeopathic medicines, because they’re attracted to them for some reason, instead of real medicine or a physician, then that could be potentially harmful. There have been some cases of people who have tried to use “natural cures” for very serious diseases and obviously had bad results from that.

Casino gamblers are, as a group, more superstitious, and I think that a superstition could lead you to spend more time at the casino. Of course, the more time you spend at the casino, the less money you will have when you leave. Generally speaking, on average, that’s true. That’s why they have the casinos, and they’re lovely and gorgeous buildings, because the house wins in the end. A superstition that sort of promotes that kind of behavior with a false belief in luck, I think that’s potentially dangerous. But basically, I think the kinds of everyday superstitions that most people use in their lives, I think, are pretty benign. I’m a scientist. I wouldn’t choose to use them. I certainly don’t encourage people to use them, but I also don’t feel as though they’re a tremendous harm.

A Lucky Superstition Could Be Harmful if it Caused More Time in a Casino

Why do you think that there’s so many superstitions associated with death and dying?

Well, obviously, it’s something people want to avoid. A number of superstitions are still believed by some people; the cultural superstitions that we learned like 13. Superstitions associated with death and dying are aimed at providing some order to a chaotic and dangerous world. If you think about the middle ages or earlier, when many of these superstitions first came about, the world was even more dangerous than it is today. We’re going through a pandemic right now, but the plagues that came earlier, they didn’t have the knowledge to deal with them the way that we are here. So people died all the time. For all various reasons, life expectancy was quite a bit shorter than it is now. It’s quite understandable that people would want to have some idea of something they can do that would create order out of the world.

The sense that if I can just do this thing, it will help to avoid death, is how these things developed. That is, undoubtedly, the origin of many of the negative superstitions; they didn’t know why people died and they didn’t have anything else to do to prevent it. The world is uncertain. Superstition is all about uncertainty, about trying to create cause and effect relationships where you don’t know how to control it otherwise. It’s also the case that in Greek and Roman times, dead people were thought to be ambassadors to the underworld. Many superstitions had to do with putting objects near a grave so the recently dead person would carry the message down into the underworld where it would then be carried out by the dead who are in the underworld. It’s an interesting thing. There’s a whole thing about death in the story of superstition.

A Lot of Superstitions are Based on Death and Dying

As someone becomes more educated and older, do you think that education would make them more or less susceptible to believing in superstition?

My hope is that it would make them less so, and I think that is true. I think that with education, especially higher education in science and also in the humanities, that people become more evidence-based in their thinking and realize that there are ways to understand the world in a natural and more valid way. There is also some evidence that people may become slightly less superstitious as they age. Interestingly, the age level that tends to be more superstitious is the 20 – 30 year old group. It’s tough to generalize, but older people tend to become more skeptical and less superstitious as they age. Recently there has been a tremendous boom in interest in astrology among people in their twenties and thirties. Part of the reason for that may be they’re not as drawn to traditional religion as previous generations. The idea that you would believe in astrology, which I do consider a superstition by the way, is something that at the moment appears to be quite popular with younger people.

Astrology is a Popular Superstition Among Younger People

Do superstitions evolve over time?

Absolutely. They change with culture and time. One of the most interesting superstitions to me is the evil eye. It is a cultural superstition that is actually very popular throughout the world. It’s especially popular in South Asia, the middle East, Italy, and areas of South America. Growing up in the Midwest of the United States, I had never heard of it as a default Protestant kid growing up. I only heard about it much later from students when I was teaching. It’s an envy based superstition. It’s the idea that someone who has the evil eye can do harm simply by looking. It tends to be based in a fear of something valuable that you have, like an infant that you’ve just had, and you’re afraid that the baby will be harmed.

Glass Bottles With Evil Eye Jewelry Inside

People do various things to try to “distract the evil eye or to reflect the evil eye” back at the person. It’s a very widely held belief, but it’s really different depending upon where you are. The Italian version of it is quite different than the South Asian version. Some people carry around Hamza or hand of Fatima jewelry that can either be a necklace or bracelet. These are all meant to distract the evil eye away. It’s very common in the Middle East. Whereas in Italy, there’s a whole different sort of jewelry aspect to it. Superstitions definitely do morph over time and change with cultural influences on them.

Please support our guest, Stuart Vyse, by purchasing his book Superstition: A Very Short Introduction.

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