Superstitions: Why do we Believe Them and What are Their Origins?

February 15, 2019

 

If someone has a bad day at work, at school, or just in general, they may blame it on the fact that they did not wear their lucky socks or carry their rabbit’s foot. However, when one has a phenomenal day, they might look for reasons why that occurred. They might be convinced that their lucky color brought them good fortune, or that it was because they did not step on any cracks in the sidewalk. They might keep testing out the things they did on their good day in hopes of having the same result on other days. These beliefs are called superstitions. Some of the most common situations attributed for bringing good and bad luck are walking under a ladder, a black cat crossing your path, finding a penny on the ground, and crossing your fingers. In the old days, there were reasons to believe in these superstitions, but nowadays most superstitions can easily be debunked with science and knowledge, something that was harder to rely on a long time ago. One would think that superstitions are a thing of the past, however, roughly one-fourth of the American population still believes in superstitions. But why?

Well, there are many reasons. For many people, holding onto superstitious beliefs provides a sense of control and reduces anxiety, which is why engaging in superstitious behaviors increases at times of stress. This is particularly the case during times of economic crisis, social uncertainty, and traumatic events, most notably, wars. Researchers have observed how in Germany between 1918 and 1940, economic tension had a direct correlation to high measures of superstition. People want to be able to feel that they are in control and can influence unpredictable factors by using superstitions or lucky charms. One of the things that especially drives superstitions is individual beliefs and experiences. The people that cling to their individual experiences are the ones that are generally superstitious. In some cases it is also less about the superstition and more about tradition, in the sense of sharing an experience and connecting with others. One example of using a superstition to connect with others comes from Jennifer En, Middle and Upper School Learning Associate/Floater here at C&C. She believes in the superstition of “cleaning the house before Lunar Year in order to sweep out the old year and welcome in the new one.” She believes in this superstition because “I am from a Chinese family that celebrates the Lunar New Year so I suppose the superstition comes from my own sense of tradition. As I have lived across the coast from my family for 20 years, the act is less about belief and more about maintaining a way to celebrate together even when we are far away from each other.” 

While there is no exact date when superstitions started, it is said that they began centuries ago when people tried to explain mysterious circumstances or events. When scientific reasoning was not entirely established, the superstition, “break a mirror and 7 years of bad luck,” was born. People would assume that shadows and reflections were a part of their soul. If someone broke something where the shadow or reflection appeared, people believed that their souls were harmed, which is why people associate that superstition with bad luck today. 

However, there are many other superstitions that have plausible backstories that would make one have a reason to believe it. One of the most popular ones today, “a black cat crossing your path,” has an especially intriguing origin. Black cats did not always have a poor reputation. In fact, in early Egyptian times, dating back as far as 3000 BC, cats (including black ones) were the stars of the animal world, held in high esteem and to kill one was considered a crime. It was not until the middle-ages in Europe that the black cat’s revered status started to go downhill as they began to be associated with “witches.” Witches practicing black magic had just hit Europe and alley cats were often cared for and fed by lonely old ladies, who were later accused of witchery. Their black cat companions were deemed guilty of witchery just because they were known to be cared for by witches. This belief had a stigma when a legend involving a father and son in Lincolnshire in the 1560’s became popular. Rumor has it that the pair were said to have been traveling one dark night when a black cat crossed their path and dove into a small space. The father and son threw rocks at the cat until the injured creature scurried out into a woman’s house, who at the time was suspected of being a witch. The next day, the father and son came across the same woman and noticed she was limping and bruised and believed that to be more than just a coincidence. From that day on in Lincolnshire, it was thought that witches could turn into black cats at night. This tale eventually spread all over the world, which is why people are aware of this superstition today. 

Superstitions have also become more than just a belief, however, and often influence daily life. Many buildings do not have a 13th floor, preferring to label it as 14, 14A, or 12B on elevator button panels because of the widespread superstition that 13 is an unlucky number. According to a survey done by Neil Dagnall, a Reader in Applied Cognitive Psychology at the Manchester Metropolitan University, 13% of people indicated that staying on the 13th floor of a hotel would bother them, and 9% said they would ask for a different room. On top of this, airlines such as Air France and Lufthansa do not have a 13th row. 

Superstitions work their way into many people’s lives, even if one is not a firm believer in them. Even if one does not consider themselves a particularly superstitious person, they probably say “bless you” when someone sneezes, or they probably say “break a leg” before someone is about to perform. Subconsciously, they are saying and doing these small things which demonstrate superstitious behavior. While only 25% of Americans admit to being superstitious in beliefs, superstitions are a part of daily life that can, believe it or not, dictate people’s choices and affect the way one thinks. 

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