Almost everyone has a set of rituals, behaviours or beliefs that they follow or do/act out, to feel more in control when exposed to events that may be out of our influence; to suppress our anxieties, fears, and nervousness. Most of these actions, carried out for our own-self, offer us a sense of security, or some sort of emotional foundation — I have a friend who ingests a couple of cubes of sugar, before a new job interview. She likes to think that this act would affect how her interview fares.
We also have a great tendency to use our imaginations to their fullest, this when trying to perceive the worst that could happen. Often our imagination, being as colourful as it may be, is also a part of the machinery that creates these rituals, behaviours, and belief systems that seem to have no rationality contained within them.
If I did tell you that I am by no means superstitious, then I’d be lying. I’d like to think that I am a well educated, intelligent guy. But, the fact remains that I am superstitious to an extent. I have my very own set of superstitious, illogical beliefs — the most memorable ones would be counting a string of numbers, the summation of which should be either equal to X, Y, or Z. Then there’s this charm that hangs around my neck; it’s been there since a long, long time. This charm, it’s become more than a safety blanket. Other than these two, there are other smaller superstitious beliefs, on which I tend to lean on — ’believe’ would be a harsher word in my case. I am a half-believer of sorts, when it comes to leaning on completely irrational processes that offer me some kind of support.
The supernatural has evoked all kinds of emotions, and feelings within us. Or has it?
The supernatural has always been there to explain things that at different points in our collective history, couldn’t be explained with logos or been there to offer some kind of needed emotional infrastructure when psychology, and science seemed far-fetched, misguided, rebuttal-filled or non-existent. It has spurred stories while imbuing itself into our folklore, culture, religion, and traditions.
Before we became a species that harnessed logic, we were more mythical creatures; bent on creating other mystical, mythical, and mythological creatures. Further creating then, these rules that governed our societies based on our created, convenient understandings, rather than found or discovered logic, psychologic methodologies, and sciences.
Generally, superstitions are commonly thought of as unrelated events that are only related in temporality; having causes, which lead up to these experiences that cannot be explained without the crutch of magic or irrational thinking; causes that are or were big question marks.
Superstitions are a part of our supernaturalist history. Superstitions are also seen as requirements to maybe fulfil some sort of emotional contentions. They may have formed out of logical systems too. For e.g. Breaking a glass mirror would bring back luck for seven years — while the origin of this superstition predates the production of silver coated mirrors, the continued existence of it maybe based on the logic that during the 15th century, when glass mirrors backed with silver coats were produced, they were expensive. Being expensive meant the owners would be rich, and would have servants who would clean these mirrors. If one broke due to any play on the part of the servants, he or she would not be in a position of replacing the broken mirror. Instead, he or she would then have to serve the owners for seven years as a form of repayment.
I am of the opinion that superstitions are a part of some lost, misinterpreted, misunderstood, mistranslated, misguided, political, conditioning filled, emotionally supportive, or even propagandist history. I am also of the opinion that because superstitions have had such a rich history, often being imbued within various traditions, cultures, and everyday thinking, it has led to ‘superstition’ becoming increasingly hard to assign a definite definition to.
Superstitions can, maybe defined as causes for events that have had the need for a cover of sorts(political or otherwise) — where religions, cultures, traditions or rituals weren’t enough to provide such convenience at the time; they maybe based on events that needed a moral justification of sorts — acceptable by the immediate social community, or events that may have brought forth emotionally expressionist gestures that later transformed into superstitions. While some of these superstitions may help us to feel in-control, less anxious, curb our nervousness, and even help us create or define out-of-the-world experiences, they’ve also been the cause themselves, of some very wrong, and illogical acts by our fellows that are down right repulsive to common sense, science, philosophy, logic, and humanity — like killing a girl child, because girls are unlucky (this one borne out of exchanging dowry, in the case of us Indians).
Superstition was referred by the ancient greeks as deisidaimonia — a fear of demons, everything divine, and evil spirits. Mostly a fear of everything mystical, mythological, and magical. The word deisidaimonia was used positively at first, often meaning, or in relation with the term “god-fearing”.
The origin of the word ‘superstition’ per-say, dates back to around 1420 — coined first by the Romans as ‘superstitio’. Along the course of its evolution, it has has been interpreted variedly, pointing out to a lot of concepts, and perceptions — logical, and illogical, both.
The origin of supernatural or superstitious beliefs may have started with us wanting to give names to scenes, events, and acts that usually are followed by scenes, events, and acts that generate awe, fear, elation, and other such maybe benevolent or not experiences that we couldn’t or cannot control. For .e.g. we still use the term ‘act of God’ for describing natural disasters or experiences that are still out of our control (mostly used in legalese).
These supernatural experiences, created by uncontrollable events, may have provided a fertile background for superstitions to be created, and then to evolve. Although today most religions scoff at being related to superstitions in general, it wasn’t long ago that superstitions were used as ammunition by different religions against other religious beliefs, and rituals. For e.g. The Romans coined, and used the word ‘superstitio’, to express contempt for religious practices that they found cruel, or barbarous.
The ‘Nimboo Mirchi’ charm is one the most prevalently used ‘evil eye’ charms in India. It’s primarily used by business owners, here. Photo Credit: https://indefiniteloop.com
Psychological conditioning also played, and still plays a role in the grooming of superstitions. It’s not so hard to believe that conditioning would play a vital role in spreading superstitious behaviour. Such conditioning may have been self-imposed, out of our own need of security, may have been political in nature, may have been a device for crowd control, etc. along with it being enforced by society, culture, traditions, and just maybe evolution. For e.g. I was told by my father to never cross a ‘Nimboo Mirchi’ charm (see the photo above), once it was discarded by its user(s) because it would bring me bad luck. Every time I did avoid it, while walking with him, I was rewarded with psychological reinforcement (positive feedback) from him. This led me to start pointing these charms out for him too! Today, it’s become inherent in nature. I am conditioned to notice these charms lying across the road, discarded after its owners believe that it has collected all the ‘evil eye’ or ‘bad luck’ from everyone looking at their business out of envy, etc. I am sure that he wanted the best for me, while growing up — but this “best” also encapsulated his illogical beliefs that I assume were passed down to him from his folks, or peers. This above example is also a superb way of showing that superstitions, evolved or not, have propagated through our loins; passed down from generation to generation.
A short on Neebu or Nimbu Mirchi Charms — It’s in hindi, but you can see how they’re used here.
“ ‘Superstition’ in The Pigeon ” is an experiment by B. F. Skinner that demonstrates operant conditioning. His use of the word ‘Superstition’ in this experiment was not intended to be used in the sense of the word that we understand it as now, but rather used to demonstrate that conditioning may take place due to the temporal relationship between response, and reinforcement. With that said, the same experiment also opened doors to a few questions with respect to superstitions — Do other organisms also show superstitious behaviours? Does the process of natural selection favour those with superstitious behavioural traits? — A paper on this, tries to exactly establish that. It takes on from Skinner’s experiment on operant conditioning, and tries to demonstrate that natural selection would favour strategies that lead to errors in assessment, as long as the the correct response favours a large fitness benefit. It tries to lay a groundwork for as to why tendencies to exhibit superstitious behaviour would evolve in all organisms.
Superstition’ in The Pigeon
What the above sentences essentially mean, is that evolution favours behavioural traits that lead to errors in assessing a situation — like for e.g. every time there’s pop of the silencer, having heard a gunshot before, I relate this sound to a gunshot. Thus, taking cover when this sound is heard, would mean that in an event when that this pop actually turns out to be a gunshot, my chances of survival do go up. To further summarise this, it would mean that organisms, including us, may have been hard wired to lean on superstitions for survival, and evolutionary benefits.
In The Modern Times
“Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favourable alignment for the enterprise” — Donald Reagan, former White House Chief of Staff to President Ronald Reagan.
Superstitions are exceedingly common today. Their adoption rate does not depend on the level of education you’ve received, the kind of money you make, the position you hold, the books you read/have read or where you’re from. They have no discriminating factor. They may very well be omnipotent, because I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t believe in at least one irrational thought based on cause and effect.
Consciously or unconsciously, they’re a part of everyday life for the most of us. Superstitions have changed with our culture. While not eradicated, most of them’ve adapted to our current value systems, often further imbuing themselves into current pop-culture, traditions, and rituals. “Feng Shui” is a common Chinese concept in architecture, placing items to bring about harmony, so that it invites good luck. “Feng Shui” literally means “wind-water”. The Japanese people, when being discharged from hospitals, may pick a discharge date to increase luck/chances for post-op recoveries. In Indian, Chinese, and some other asian cultures the number 8 is considered to be lucky. This has spurred sales of flat numbers that contain 8, or vehicle number plates that end or begin with the number 8. The Chinese, and Japanese people consider 4 to be an unlucky number, because the sound of it’s pronunciation is similar to the sound of pronunciation for “death”. In India, a series of misfortunate events happening to someone would be inferred as someone’s “evil eye” or “nazaar” has been caught by this person who is experiencing these unfortunate circumstances — often resulting in counter measures like wearing warding charms, like the “evil eye” charm I mentioned at the start of this post. Trucks, here in India, will often sport “buri nazaar wale tera muh kala” — literally translated as: “O evil-eyed one, your face will turn black”. All of this, and more just goes to show how superstitions affect our decision making skills still — often leading me to think of them as a cognitive bias, if nothing more.
Oppositions to superstitions were first recorded in ancient Greece, with the idea of seeking the truth behind them. Since then philosophy, science, psychology, and religion have a come a long way. Some great minds have had already predicted that superstitions would eradicate themselves, once Man was educated enough in time. Yet, tackling superstitions has been a though act at best or we still have ways to go before we’re educated. While there exists a lot of debate, theories, etc. on why superstitions exist, there still does not exist a consensus in the community as to a sound explanation for their existence. But, this hasn’t stopped science, and psychology from harnessing superstitious behaviour to improve or support lives. Take for e.g. a psychological study proved that superstitious behaviour influences execution of tasks — often providing needed confidence, improving motor dexterity, memory performance, etc. There are other studies that have been made, or are being made to use superstition to challenge some psychological behaviours like OCD, and dementia.
Superstitions are removed from religion, and theism. Religion, and superstition now contrast each other. Some even considering that superstitions have spoilt religion, or have somehow made it more un-sacred. There have been accounts, during varied periods in time, where governments, the Church, and other politico-religious governing bodies have stepped in to help eradicate superstitions. Eradication takes re-eduction on a scale that would be impossible, at least here in India. India, is a land strongly submerged in supersition. Even today, I’ve people around me that believe in it strongly. I would go as far as even doubting that they could be eradicated entirely so.
It’s a consumerist world we live in. So, it’s not very hard to imagine that superstitions would be leveraged by the market, to sell products to the consumers. Like the example I stated above — apartments with lucky numbers (or apartments on lucky floor numbers — like the 8th floor) sell for a premium. Although using or playing on a consumer’s superstition may be against the law in certain countries, the fact remains that from cola companies to fast food chains, they’ve all done it.
Then there’s Tantrism, and active groups that teach, follow, and practise it. Many “Tantric” doctors exist — at least here in India, who charge exorbitant fees for warding off evil spirits, curing cancer, and providing one-potion-that-cures-all medicines. And people do hire them for their services, and products. Most of it may be harmless, or it may be totally inert to other treatments these consumerist-patients may be undergoing, but there have been cases where magic doctors have been the reason for early deaths of cancer patients, and people afflicted with other diseases.
My uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer — he never used to smoke, or drink. It was asbestos that was the cause of it. Apart from chemo therapy, and other medical procedures he underwent for cancer patients, on behest of my other family members, he used to take this cure-all tonic called ‘Body Revival’. For most of the time, it had been inert. But, as time went on, this tonic would become a cause for his lung collapsing upon his heart; leading to an early death. While it may be debated that earlier would be better than later, it still stands that he was duped. That we were duped. Easily so, wanting to believe that just maybe it would work, where modern science, and medicine failed.
Lucky charms, charms that offer protection (in my case I feel secure wearing that pendant around my neck), and charms that ward of evil, evil-eye, and so on do sell like hot cakes. I am of the opinion that these charms are okay, that these provide some form of emotional support, a backing, or a kind of emotional security. Before I agreed to stock ‘evil eye’ pendants on Odd Curiosity, I did think about the fact that it may be detrimental to selling these to others. Which, actually, led to some research resulting in this article, and extending me the logic to make the decision of stocking them. As I mention somewhere above, studies have been carried out, those that point out that these charms may actually boost confidence, and offer emotional constructs where it may be required. Of course, there exists the possibility that I may be biased towards them — because that pendant I wear does offer a feeling of security, if nothing else.
Astrology — I am quite sure everyone’s familiar with that term. A lot of people love reading the horoscopes, for varied reasons. I read it too, for the fun of it; having the habit of reading it after the day has passed, comparing the events of the day to see if they match with whatever is written in the newspaper columns. In Hindu culture, there’s this concept of ‘Janaam Kundali’, also known as Natal charts. These are used to check, and compare compatibility between a couple, before they get married; also used to check, and compare compatibility between two or more business partners. It’s used to predict a person’s future, apparent problems he/she may face down the line, solutions to those problems, do’s and don’ts for the person, and so on — this right from the get-go. Often first names are also decided based on these charts. It’s is a huge market here, in India.
Superstitious culture has embedded itself into popular culture, and fashion too. Often adapting itself to the current evolution of our understandings.
With famous quotes, anecdotes, and what-may-have-you appearing on tees, bookmarks, keychains, etc. A lot of big brand fashion has also been inspired by superstitious rituals, and traditional beliefs that border on superstition. Colours choices for team jerseys, placards, etc. are also inspired from superstition. Another set of examples would be: Should I wear my lucky shirt for my first date with her? Should I wear my lucky Jimmy’s for my first date with him? I want a magical, romantic dress for this valentine’s day — and so on.
Clearly, there’s a strong connection here — between consumerism, and superstitious behaviour. I mean, I am about to put up evil eye charms on my shop, to sell them.
Today, most of us who believe in our very own superstitions do so using a what’s known as a ‘half-belief’ system. We’re aware of the fact that what we believe in as superstition, cannot change or affect the course of events to come. Still, we hold on to those beliefs; often justifying them as “What if’s”, “Why not?”, “Doesn’t hurt”, and so on.
As long as these beliefs help us acquire emotional support, provide confidence, and generally are influencers for bettering ourselves, I think that they’re fine. They’re fine, as long as all that doesn’t turn into fanaticism or obsessiveness. They’re all fine, as long as they do not hurt others around us; or as long as they do not interfere with our normal, daily lives.
With all of that being said, it’s refreshing to see that superstitions can spur creativity. Like the creation of stories, fashion, art, and creative rituals — whatever they might be. It’s pleasant to know that all superstitions are not evil, and that many may affect us in a positive sense. It’s also sad to know that in this day, and age superstitious behaviour, which was once created out of logic when education wasn’t as accessible as it is today, is now blind faith — very much like the example I mention above, where a girl child being born is considered unlucky often resulting in female infanticide just because it may be expensive to get the girl child married in the future. And living in India, being an Indian is shameful in that respect.
Do also note, that I am in no way an expert on superstitions. Whatever is written here, is based solely on my curiosity to find and read more about the topic — which was spurred by the idea of stocking evil eye pendants on my online shop, and that if it was alright for me to do so.
Lastly, I would love to know your thoughts on this subject matter. Leave a comment, or just send a tweet.
First Published In The Newsletter
References & Further Reading:
Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance by Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler — University of Cologne
Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition — By Stuart A. Vyse
‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon by B. F. Miller — Indiana University.
Superstition — New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.
The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour — Kevin R Foster, Hanna Kokko
What Might Have Been: The Social Psychology of Counterfactual Thinking By Neal J. Roese, James M. Olson
Influence of superstition on the date of hospital discharge and medical cost in Japan: retrospective and descriptive study — Cesare Tosetti
Functional analysis of challenging behaviour in dementia: the role of superstition — Esme Moniz-Cook, Robert T. Woods and Kate Richards
Superstition — Superstition In The Modern World.
Understanding, defining and measuring the trait of superstition — Eva Delacroix & Valerie Guillard.
Superstition and ‘‘lucky’’ apartments: Evidence from transaction-level data — Matthew Shum, Wei Sun, Guangliang Ye.