Superstition, Conspiracies and Control

(Last Updated On: February 4, 2014)

Superstition black cat inky2010 200pxScience Fact:  Superstition is a strong force in people’s lives today, despite the ubiquitous presence of science and technology.  For example, professional athletes are superstitious about their warm-up rituals, their clothing, their accessories, even what they say and do.  Sports fans are just as superstitious about their teams.  And there are many more examples in everyday life (do you step on the sidewalk cracks?)  I thank subscriber and friend Charles South for alerting me to the Wall Street Journal article discussing recent work on superstition and inspiring this post.

Superstition seems unscientific and irrational, yet persists so strongly that many scientists have been irresistibly drawn to study it.  The recent study by Profs. Hamerman and Johar shows that superstitions become strong when people really want something badly (I want my team to win, and besides I bet a lot of money on them!), but feel powerless to make it happen.  They search for something, anything, that seems associated with past successes and ride it for all it’s worth.

Experiments in psychology involve people and require careful experimental design, which was the case in this study.  Without going into details (which you might enjoy reading for yourself in the article), phases of the study used mini Snickers candy bars as “lucky tokens” for helping the home team win, “lucky colors” for the background of a computer-based trivia game, and choice of a “lucky” right or left hand for a rock-paper-scissors competition.  Both Hamerman and Johar have a continuing research interest in consumer behavior, especially consumer choice of branded products.  It’s easy to see the practical advantages to a marketer if his brand of beer might be selected as a lucky talisman by a number of sports fans.  Therefore, superstition – at least, a superstition held by one’s customers – can really pay off!

The same set of circumstances – wanting something but feeling powerless to make it happen – drives a much wider range of behavior than superstition.  In 2008 Profs. Whitson and Galinsky found that people would see patterns where no patterns existed, as a means of trying to understand confusing sensory impressions.  They found that those who felt they lacked control over a situation that mattered a lot to them were likely to: see images in noise; discern nonexistent patterns in simulated stock market data; believe in conspiracies; and develop superstitions.  As Prof. Whitson says in a podcast transcript “When we lack control we’re going to see and seek out patterns, sometimes even false patterns, in order to regain our sense of control… the same visceral need for control is affecting all of these things.”

Science Speculation:  An interesting question to ask is how superstition relates to religion.  They both deal with unseen forces and powers, and in fact some hard-line skeptics consider religion to be just one more superstition.

Yet the connection between superstition and religion is much deeper than that.  To the Classical Romans, superstitio (superstition) was excessive fear of the gods, as opposed to religio (religion), the proper and reasonable awe of the gods.  In case you think this attitude died with Ancient Rome, paragraph 2110 of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church may be paraphrased to say “superstition represents a perverse excess of religion; whereas irreligion is a lack of religion.”  In other words, too much faith, that is, faith in the wrong things, is just as bad as no faith at all.

A thought experiment helps address these concepts.  Imagine a pathway, let’s say a footpath, several miles long.  At one end, Science; at the other, Superstition; and somewhere in the middle, Religion.  From the relative positions of these entities, intolerant attitudes seem quite natural:  Science looks at Religion and Superstition, both seemingly very far away, and lumps them together as one and the same.  Similarly, Superstition looks at Science and Religion, both very distant, and decrees that both of them are equivalent: that both suffer from a lack of belief, a lack of imagination that keeps them from giving credence to Superstition.  Religion of course sees itself as sitting in the just-right Goldilocks position: immersed in the Divine, not like Science devoid of heart and humanity, and also not like Superstition the prisoner of irrational emotion.

Whar would we call this imaginary pathway?  The Scientist might call it Credulity, a word that means willingness to believe but which is also colored by the suggestion that thoughtful analysis is lacking;  the Religious person of course would call it Faith.  What the Superstitionist would call it I cannot say.

Does superstition play a part in your everyday actions?  If so, how do you think about it – do you act consciously (intentionally), unconsciously (without thinking), or perhaps simply out of habit?

Drawing Credit: inky2010, on


Superstition, Conspiracies and Control — 1 Comment

  1. Prof. Eric Hamerman, whose work is quoted in this post, provided some additional comments by e-mail, which are quoted below with his permission:

    It looks like you’ve done a nice job of describing our findings, and you make some interesting points about religion and superstition.

    You left your readers with a question about whether superstition is a conscious or unconscious phenomenon. We found that conditioned superstition (superstitions created through an experienced association between products and success/failure) was a conscious strategy, but others (Kramer and Block, for example) have found that the activation of cultural superstitions (e.g., Friday the 13th is dangerous) is largely unconscious.

    To expand on the point, for conditioned superstition, we found that people act on these irrational associations when they report high awareness of them. As an example, think about someone who has developed (through trial and error) a lucky spot on the couch to sit when watching his favorite NFL team, or another who always wears a lucky shirt when taking an exam. These people are obviously cognizant of their actions, and they perform them to facilitate a specific outcome.

    However, for cultural superstition, imagine someone who looks at the calendar and sees Friday the 13th, and then later displays risk aversion on an unrelated task (a finding from Kramer and Block). This person might not be aware that having thought about Friday the 13th led to his subsequent behavior.