The Science of Superstition

Its Social and Psychological Foundations Part I


Examples of Superstitious Behavior

Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and the author of one of the books I’ll be referencing called Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. In that book he used his students as guinea pigs for his research on superstition. Before taking one of his exams Vyse found the following superstitions for good outcomes among his student. These included if they:

  • Used a lucky pen, piece of jewelry or clothing – 62%
  • Wore sloppy clothes – 28%
  • Dressed up – 33%
  • Touched a lucky object – 36%
  • Sat in a particular seat – 54%
  • Listened to special music or particular song – 38%
  • Eaten a particular food – 26%
  • Avoided particular person, place and action – 23%
  • Performed a lucky action or sequence of actions – 31%
  • Wore a particular kind of perfume – 13%

Given that Stuart teaches courses on statistics, these students need all the help they can muster!

The scope of superstition

Gustav Jahoda proposed four categories of superstition that provide a valuable framework in our search to understand superstition:.

  1. as part of a cosmology or coherent world-view such as the magic of tribal societies;
  2. as experiences with the paranormal such as ESP, communicating with the dead, ghosts and haunted houses;
  3. as socially shared superstitions such as black cats that can bring bad luck. Not walking under a ladder or not doing anything significant on Friday the 13th and;
  4. as personal superstitions that include lucky shirts, hats, and numbers.

We will be mostly concerned with the third and fourth categories in this article.

What is superstition?

Superstitious behavior and thoughts are most likely to emerges under three conditions:

  • when there is significant uncertainty which promotes fear;
  • the reward in very important; and
  • the cost of the superstition is minimal.

Yet not all superstition is based on fear. For example, gambling, driving fast, skydiving and taking drugs are all instances in which people choose uncertainty for the high that is brought.

Science divides the natural world into three dimensions: the physical world of material objects, the biological world of life and the psychological world of human intentions. These are all distinct from each other. What religion, the paranormal and the superstitious all have in common is the fusion of inanimate, animate and psychological. What this means is the belief that rocks can come alive or that caterpillars can have intentions. In addition, minds can communicate with minds, unmediated by brains and bodies. Superstitions are beliefs and behaviors which defy natural law (fusing ontological categories) while making a supposed invisible connection between natural events. Its purpose is to:

  • either quell uncertainty;
  • bring good luck; and
  • create a temporary high (sensation-seeking).

Sir James Frazer’s principle of superstition as it relates to magic is more precise in what this hidden order is like. Frazer described two important principles of sympathetic magic:

  • Homeopathy magic is based on the law of similarity, that like produces like. In voodoo, a burning an effigy will weaken the person burned in effigy.
  • Law of contagion – where there is a lasting connection between things that were once in contact.

Superstitious judgmental biases

Control, or the illusion of it, is very important in superstition. For example, gambling participants think they have a better chance of winning if they roll the dice and if they choose the number. In superstitious thinking illusionary correlations play an important role in the maintenance of many superstitions. For example, too much attention is paid to times when:

  • the superstition was tried and the outcome worked or;
  • when the superstition was not tried and the outcome failed.

It is ignored in times when:

  • the superstition was not tried and the outcome succeeded; or
  • when the superstition was tried but the outcome failed.

Further, the number one reason people given to believe in the superstition is from personal experience. But these same people do not understand the inherent weaknesses in how people interpret events. For example, scientific research shows we underestimate the likelihood of how often weird stuff happens. They are more common than we think.  The second bias is to overestimate the likelihood of events that are rare, like being killed in a plane crash. If you go to a different party each week with at least 23 people each, on average two people will have the same birthday half the time. We are not equipped to think about likelihood very accurately because the science of probability is only about 300 years old. It’s too recent to be part of our evolutionary heritage. Instead, we interpret these coincidences as if something supernatural were involved.

Questions about the relationship between religion, superstition, the paranormal and psychopathology

Is it possible to be religious and not superstitious? Is it possible to be an atheist and still be superstitious? Can you believe in paranormal (ESP, telepathy) and not be superstitious? Can you be superstitious and not believe in the paranormal? Are all irrationalities superstitious? The answer is no. Some irrationalities are not always superstitious, such as murder or schizophrenia. Further, some superstitions, given the level of intensity, the dangers involved and the unpredictability of the outcome might make superstitions a rational strategy! Is there any relationship between the kind of work you do and superstition? How much of superstition is governed by age? Are there certain ages in children when they are more superstitious than others? Is there a superstitious personality?  Are superstitions people abnormal? Are superstitions indicative of a psychological disorder? Should we be concerned about our mental health if we are superstitious?

Where we are headed

This article is divided into two parts. In Part I, I start with a socio-culture of superstition. I identify the social demographics of groups most likely to be superstitious, including their occupations. Further, I identify how superstitious behaviors are learned, focusing on associative (Pavlov) and operant conditioning (Skinner). We discuss attachment to places and to objects and the reasons for these attachments. I close part I by showing why it is easier for people to believe in creationism rather than evolution.

After summarizing part one of this article, the heart of Part II is to discuss how the mind develops in children. We examine children’s superstitious thinking in the light of recent criticisms of Piaget.  We talk about how some of Piaget’s findings have been replaced by psychological essentialism.  Next, I show how our social theory of mind invites superstitious thinking. Our ability to form social relationships leads to speculation about meanings and intentions which leads to superstitious mind-reading. Towards the end of Part II of this 2-piece article, it may seem like a no-brainer to announce that superstitious behavior is irrational. However, there are some extreme conditions in which thinking superstitiously is rational. Further, I ask whether superstitious thinking is pathological.  Whether superstitious thinking is irrational or pathological, I’d like to know if it is dangerous. As I pointed out in an earlier article, superstition is the product of an ancient mind. Experiencing the world in a non-superstitious way is a product of the reflective mind and only gathers force in the scientific revolution of the 17th century.

My claim

My claim in this article is that superstitious thinking and behaving is built into the mind by our biological inheritance and we cannot get rid of it completely. While more modern societies can minimize its impact through science and its institutions, there are limits in how far it can go. For this article I will be referring to two books. The first in Believing in Magic by Stuart Vyse and the second is by Bruce Hood, The Science of Superstition.


This article is about the origins of supernatural beliefs, why they are so common and why they are be so hard to get rid of. This piece is not about ghosts and ghouls or anything paranormal. Rather it is about the supernatural thinking and behavior in everyday activity. Lastly, this article is about the science behind our superstitions not whether these beliefs and behaviors are or are not true.

The Sociology of Superstition

Culture is a necessary but not sufficient condition for superstition

Superstition depends partly on the proportion of social life that is secular and how much is sacred. Of course, in tribal societies where there is little secular culture developed, parents will pass on cultural superstitious traditions. However, in his book The Science of Superstition Bruce Hood points out that children, even when raised in a strong secular culture such as Russia (when it was the Soviet Union) or the Scandinavian countries, children are still superstitious. Even atheists are still vulnerable to good luck charms, knocking on wood and crossing fingers no matter how much of a rationalist they may be.

How are work and leisure related to superstition?

Which social groups are superstitious considering demographics of occupation, gender, age, and education? Traditionally superstitious occupational groups include sports figures, gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors and college students.

Professional athletes and actors are the most famous superstitious people and there is more to superstition in team sports than individual sports like track. In baseball, the most capricious parts of the game are batting and pitching and are the most suspectable to superstition. Female athletes think that dressing well is especially important to success.

Some gamblers certainly have rules like these: the number of rolls is connected with the velocity of the throw; a soft touch brings low numbers and; a hard throw brings a high one. If you want to talk to the dice, slow the pace down. Some superstitions are aimed at maintenance of successful hot streak; other superstitions are designed to break a batting slump with a hit.


Gender studies show that women are more superstitious and have a greater belief in the paranormal than do men. I think this has to do with women having less control over their lives and needing some method of making their world seem more predictable. Vyse tells us that in childhood and early adolescence boys and girls do not differ in their locus of control. In college however, women begin to show a greater external locus of control then men. People in the soft sciences are more likely to be superstitious than people in the hard sciences. The later probably use the scientific method as part of their work more frequently.

People with an external locus of control are more superstitious. If a person feels their life is unpredictable, they are going to be drawn to superstitious techniques for making them more predictable. This means working class people are more likely to be susceptible than upper middle-class people. Hypnotic suggestibility studies found that those who were higher in suggestibility were more likely to have psychic experience, such as seeing angels or extraterrestrials. In terms of the big five of personality theory, superstitious behavior is connected to higher levels of neuroticism, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and low ego strength. They have difficulty responding constructively to stressful or challenging events. People with low ambiguity tolerance and living in high stress area are especially superstitious.

How is Superstition Acquired?

Association and conditioning

As Ford says, we are not born knocking on wood. Superstition is acquired. We become followers of astrology. How it is acquired depends on events coming together in time, place and with people, something psychologists call “contiguity”. Pavlov developed seven laws of association. Associations are events that happen right before the stimulus and the behavior and are for the most part unconscious. The first law of association is temporal continuity of association. In a weak association more time will pass between the association and the stimulus. A stronger linkage between association and stimulus occurs if association happens right before the behavior. The second law is the intensity of the association. A weak association goes with drab colors, monotone sounds or neutral smells. Strong intensity is associated more with vivid sights, sounds and smells. The third law is the frequency of the association. The more frequent and consistent the association the more likely the behavior will be repeated. The more infrequent or erratic the association the less chance the behavior will have of continuing. This is one reason why therapists like to insist that their meetings be on the same day of the week, hopefully at the same time and in the same place.

The fourth law of association is the resemblance between the association and the behavior. The closer the resemblance association is the greater the chance the association will be linked to the stimulus. So if you are trying to build a habit of going running it’s not a good idea to play Brahma Lullaby right before getting out of bed to run. Speedy music is best for speedy activities. The fifth law of association is the sequencing between association and stimulus. It is always best to create an association right before the behavior, not right after it. The sixth association has to do with duration. Associations which last a long time right before the behavior will create a deeper impression than if the duration is too fast. Lastly, we have the quality of the association itself. If the association is very enjoyable that will make it more likely to be repeated. If it is enjoyable in itself, it is more likely to make the connection with the behavior intrinsic.

What is the connection between these laws and superstition? After all, Pavlov was a scientist. The most significant thing is that these associations are made unconsciously by people who haven’t a clue about Pavlov’s laws. That means the associations are operating behind the person’s back. The success between the association and behavior is interpreted superstitiously, as some kind of occult connection when there is really a scientific explanation.

Consequential conditioning

The same process of unconscious assimilation happens right after the behavior with the consequences. BF Skinner argued that a consequence that follows the behavior can either strengthen the behavior or weaken it. A consequence that increases the behavior is a reinforcement. The consequence that weakens the behavior is called a punishment. Skinner further divided reinforcers into positive and negative. Conversely, he divided punishment into positive and negative. Again, people’s behavior is not consciously connected to consequences so successes and failures seem to happen in a haphazard way. The successes and failures seem to come out of nowhere and so there is a search for some hidden set of rules that explains them. Hence, we have superstitious beliefs and behaviors. The development of pathological obsessions, compulsions and phobias can all be explained by both associational and consequential conditions. Magical and religious rituals can be similarly explained.

When Does a Routine Become a Superstition?

People like to have routines to ground their lives in things they can control. So, if every morning I turn on the lights, start my computer, wash up, put my clothes on, go into the kitchen and start to have breakfast there is comfort in knowing I do everything in the same order. Then I might read my email, have breakfast and go for my walk. So practically, if I went for my walk before I looked at my email and then had my breakfast and then checked my email it really is not that important. This routine would become superstitious when the order became compulsive. I might feel that the rest of my day would be ruined if I did things out of order. I might feel instead of the routine being mindful, it became mindless, like muttering hymns in church as a little kid with no understanding of what the words meant. However, I did it because God would punish me if I didn’t.

Attachment to Places

In his book The Science of Superstition, Bruce Hood points out that houses associated with notorious murders are difficult to resell. Could you buy or even rent a house where a murder was once committed? Are you a person who would cross the street to avoid standing on the same spot where the evil took place?  Why would mature adults will pay good money for personal items that once belonged to famous people? Why do fans go crazy when they get to physically touch their sports heroes or rock stars?

There are principles of superstition that underly these reservations. We intuitively feel that the integrity of something good can be more easily spoiled by contact with something bad rather than the reverse. Why do we treat evil as contagious more so than good? Why do we refuse to touch evil items? Bruce Hood quotes Rozin saying  that adults endorse each of these reasons to varying degrees because:

  • we do not want to be seen undertaking an action that the majority of people would avoid;
  • an item associated with a killer is negative and wearing it produces associations with the act of killing;
  • it is imagined there is a physical contamination of the clothing; and
  • we believe there is a spiritual contamination of the clothing.

Attachment to Objects

In an old store author Bruce Hood visited, the objects were so evocative that if he closed his eyes he could smell decades pass him by. The shop had a wonderful aroma of the past, laced with tobacco. Objects are a tangible, physical link with the past that can instantly transport us back to earlier days. Objects define who we think we are. We treat objects as an extension of ourselves. We think some invisible property in them makes them what they are. Old chairs seem to know something about the past. How far can this be carried? When will it turn into a superstition?

What is a fetish? A fetish is a belief that an object has supernatural powers. They are attributing to physical objects invisible properties. Certainly, furniture has a history in its faded fabric and scratched legs. They remind us of events or people, but many people go further. They claim that the objects are haunted by dead relatives.

Evolutionary Mind Structure

What humans do most naturally and spontaneously at the most basic level is to look for patterns. We imagine hidden faces and causes as part of watching for patterns. Further we see things in wholes, not parts. Gestalt psychologists have shown that the mind fills in the missing edges of shapes that in real life are only partly formed. The completed shapes do not really exist. Our brains have created something out of nothing because the completed shapes are generalizations about shapes that help us to survive. In part we see faces in the clouds or on Mars because we are not used to working with coincidence and the possibility that things happen randomly and by chance. If you are like most people, if Vyse asked you to generate a random series of numbers, you might happily announce you could do it. In coin flips, you are much more likely to alternate fourteen flips with either heads or tails.  But chance is just as likely to generate streaksof heads or streaks of tales. Because our minds are designed to see the world as organized we often detect pattern that are not really present. Because what causes events in the world is something we cannot witness since they happen in scales of time and space that are too large for us, our minds have evolved to infer the existence cause of things we can’t see. This is because any cause, even sinister ones, is better than being ruled by chance.

Humans’ Lack of Imagination About Slow Creativity

Darwin’s theory of natural selection is hard to understand because it operates at time scales well beyond the lifetime of an individual. This makes it difficult for people to accept. When we see the diversity of life forms in our day it is hard to believe that such complexity could arrive spontaneously with no designer over long periods of time. As individuals with relatively short life-spans, we don’t have the experience of immense passages of time and so we cannot observe evolution at work. Furthermore, we are not naturally inclined to imagine a theory that is non-purposive and non -directive. This is because so many of our actions are driven by plans and purposes. We can’t imagine nature without it.

Why is it so hard for people to become scientific in their thinking? Science is full of ideas that seem bizarre simply because:

  1. a) we are not used to them and
  2. b) they are hard to wrap our heads around and require specialized knowledge like a class in scientific methodology and statistics. It is easier to imagine ghosts than a light wave made of up photons

On the other hand, monotheistic intuitions for creationism include:

  • the world is governed by non-random events or patterns in the world;
  • events are caused by intention;
  • complexity cannot happen spontaneously but must be a product of someone’s plan to design things for a purpose; and
  • All living things are fundamentally different because of some invisible property inside them (essences)

No wonder monotheistic religion continues to be  adhered to in spite of Darwinian evolution!

The Roots of Mind-Body Dualism

Epistemologically, the mind seems to have no real direct connection in the physical world. That is why some consider mind-body dualism irrefutable evidence for why there must be supernatural powers operating in the world. Hood cautions us that once we commit to the independent existence of mind and body, there is no limit to what the mind can do. If the mind is separate from the body it is not constrained by the same laws that govern the physical world.

Coming Attractions of Part II

As a result of his research among children and adolescents, Piaget developed a cogent and elaborate system for understanding child development. He certainly explained superstition well. But recently many of his findings have to be adjusted as a result of collaborations between psychologists and stage magicians. Current research in child development tells us that much of superstition results from the fusion of the physical, biological and psychological worlds. Piaget would haves certainly agreed with this, using  his own terminology. However, thanks to the work of Susan Gelman, we learn that children are psychological essentialists. In part II we will find out what that means, not only for children but also for adults.

The human mind is lost in the world of other people long before the mind becomes self-reflective.  A child learns very soon that other human beings have minds which have intentions and give meaning which is different from the child. The mind of the adult has intentions which are hidden from them. But in order to become mind-readers, children must face up to the fact that minds appear to be separate from bodies. How might this be related to the emergence of superstition? Ghosts are often associated with the superstitions but what evolutionary adaptative function might ghosts serve?

Which psychopathology is most consistently connected with superstition: paranoia, neurosis or schizophrenia? Is superstitious thinking and behavior the cause or the consequence of psychopathology?

What are the conditions under which superstitious thoughts or behavior are rational? What does how much uncertainty there is in a situation and what are the stakes have to do with rationality? How much does the amount of time and the cost in time and energy play a factor? How  does knowledge of science, problem-solving skills and decision-making capacities connect to being rational yet still being superstitious?

It is a common stereotype to say that tribal people are more superstitious than people who live in industrial capitalist or socialist societies. Putting aside the imperialistic and monotheistic use these claims can be put to, this claim is true for bioevolutionary reasons. Comparing the ancestral mind to the deliberative mind pulls together most, if not all the facets of superstitious thinking and behavior in this article.

About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

View all posts by Bruce Lerro →

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