The Oddities of Superstition
by Bridgett Jackson | published Mar. 4th, 2016
Hear a sneeze and there are five people who will immediately say “bless you.” From childhood, we are trained that it is our duty to "bless" someone when they sneeze. Will they die if you don’t? Probably not, but many wouldn't even think of chancing it in the fear of somehow getting bad luck.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary has defined superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Quite a mouthful, but superstition can be found in all aspects of religion, society and culture.
Friday the 13th
Everyone has a superstition and most people don’t realize it. Some of the most famous superstitions have even spilled into media and become popular to all of us. Let’s start with one of the most famous: Friday the 13th. There are many theories as to why so many people view this day as being unlucky, but the main idea is that many people equate the number 13 to severe bad luck.
Some people have become so afraid of the day that they refuse to do anything from going outside or getting married to even cleaning their own homes. This supposedly unlucky day has almost become a holiday based on the level of attention it receives. The famous "Friday the 13th" movie franchise, which has 12 movies under its belt, is recognized worldwide by name and the popular Jason hockey goalie mask.
Breaking a Mirror
Next is the cringe-worthy breaking of a mirror, which is thought to bring about a devastating seven years of bad luck. Alan Refkin reported on Thornhill Capital's website that this superstition goes all the way back to ancient times. People believed that a person could lose a piece of their soul inside a mirror, especially by breaking it.
People believed that a person could lose a piece of their soul inside of a mirror.
At the time that the mirror is thought to have been first created, the Roman's also believed that the body would completely regenerate every seven years. Breaking a mirror would result in the soul being stuck until the seven years was up. After multiple eras, the superstition has evolved so that a person would just be unlucky until seven years had passed after breaking the mirror.
It is curious that it is so popular that people throw salt over their left shoulder when they spill it. Like many others, this superstition also has to do with bad luck. A relatively famous salt spilling incident is included in the painting of the Last Supper where Judas is unaware that he knocked salt over with his wrist.
Refkin stated that the salt should be thrown over the left shoulder because there is a belief that the Devil looks over the left shoulder. When the salt is spilled, the Devil is given an opening to attach himself and cause chaos. Grabbing the same salt and throwing it over the left shoulder would immediately blind the Devil and ultimately prevent the opportunity to create havoc.
Knock on Wood
A more positive idea of a superstition is the idea of knocking on wood. The superstition is that knocking on wood or even touching it could ultimately bring about some good luck after someone has said something potentially bad. Many people have adopted this custom and Refkin traces this back to ancient times again. The theory is that there were deities that lived in trees and when a bad event occurred a person would knock on the wood to get their acknowledgment and protection from any misfortune that may come.
The Psychological Aspect of Superstition
Superstition is largely based in psychology. RIT's Adjunct Psychology Professor Elise Banfield stresses the importance of your own truth on your real experiences.
"It is not the reality that matters, it's the belief about the reality that matters," she said.
"It is not the reality that matters, it's the belief about the reality that matters."
Superstitions can be explained by classical conditioning, which is a learned process that connects a neutral stimuli to an unconditioned stimuli to form an unconditioned response. Repeating this multiple times creates a conditioned response. Essentially, classical conditioning is like if you were wearing a certain shirt while you win money in poker. Then you start to wear that shirt every time you play poker because of the positive feeling of "luck" you attach to it. People associate strong, positive feelings to objects or rituals if the outcome feels positive to them, even if it is not guaranteed.
Banfield also stressed the use of state-dependent retrieval in superstitious and ritualistic acts. State-dependent retrieval means that people are best able to retrieve information when they are in the same sense of consciousness as when they first formed the memory. Context cues and emotions are absorbed when learning new material and help you to remember it later.
"For example, it can be tough on students to take their final exam in a different room at a different time on a different day because they are used to experiencing the material; for instance, Wednesday nights in Brown 1150," Banfield explained. "If I remove them and I have them take the test in the morning in a different building in a whole different room, it will hurt their ability to recall information."
Even objects like pens, signs and clothing from their normal classroom experience can help retrieve the things they learned. State-dependent retrieval is general and used widely but can also be seen as superstitious if rituals and objects are constantly being used as if they are lucky. This means that the things we perceive as lucky charms are actually just context clues and superstition is just the result of our brain's desire to figure out what's going on.