The Science (or Lack Thereof) Behind Superstitions

October 26, 2017
By catecelentano SILVER, Wyckoff, New Jersey
catecelentano SILVER, Wyckoff, New Jersey
8 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Do you believe that if your ears ring someone is talking about you? Are you too scared to open an umbrella inside? Do you think walking under a ladder will bring you instant bad luck? If you believe that certain situations can bring you good or bad luck, then you would be classified as superstitious. According to Merriam Webster, a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” General ideas that fall under being classified as superstitions are magic, witchcraft and sorcery. Some people believe they are truly affected by superstitions, while others do not tolerate the idea of something supernatural occuring to them. It turns out, there are studies that analyze the science of superstitions and explore why people some want to believe in them, and why others do not. However, researchers conducted a magnitude of studies and have concluded that no one is immune to this superstitious thinking.


Superstitious thoughts go back to before presents times. Several centuries ago in Ancient Britain, it was believed that if women held acorns they would become younger. In Turkey, it was believed that if you were to chew gum late at night the gum would turn into the flesh of the dead. Of course, we know today that there is no such thing as a youthful acorn or magical gum, but people in these times earnestly believed that.

A survey that was recently conducted showed that scientists at places like MIT and other top schools were less inclined to believe in superstitions and felt the need to attach a purpose to a supernatural occurrence. This is probably due to the fact that people in these places are trained to think intelligently and always back up their ideas with facts. However some scientists disagree with this and do not always try to back up superstitions with evidential ideas. Specifically, professor Jane Risen, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business said, “even when people recognize their nonsensical belief, they can still allow it to influence how they think, feel, and behave. Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults believe in recognizably unreasonable superstition. (Risen) This could be credited to the fact that many medical practitioners who may not necessarily believe in superstitions having hard evidence, do not want to tempt bad luck either way. A surgeon from Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, Canada, said, that before major procedures he listens to the same song or wears a certain accessory such as his lucky watch to increase better odds. These specific real life examples prove that not even scientists or psychologists are exempt from assuming that precise events can create good or bad fate.

Believing in magic or the supernatural is not due to ignorance or lack of education. It seems normal and socially acceptable, according to studies because most people have been shown to do it. Humans, without thinking much about it, give attributes and credit to nature the same way we do to other people. However, another main effect from thinking irrationally comes out of fear. Pure, natural fear can cause a person to believe in absurd things and not be in a clear state of thinking. A study was conducted in British where a self proclaimed witch offered to cast a hex on scientists. Logically, it was expected that the scientists accept the offer, because if it comes down to science, witches are not real. Shockingly enough, more than half of the scientists declined the offer. That study went on to show that even people who are trained for years to look at evidence-based situations got just as scared when the chance of being faced with the supernatural was right in front of them. This comes down to the suggestion that one of the main fears human beings have is fear of the unknown. Similarly, according to the Atlantic, a study was conducted, where researchers found that even atheists feared the idea of a higher power. In a study taken less recently, the atheists being studied began to sweat and fidget when reading sentences such as “I dare God to make my parents drown.” This study concluded that the atheists got just as nervous about this as the believers did. This way of thinking is not limited to a certain type of person. It is simply a human way of reacting to something, we as humans can not understand.

One of the most common superstitions our society faces today is being afraid of the number 13. Firstly, it is widely believed there is no rational reason to be afraid of the number 13 or any number for that matter. However, researchers have decided that there may be some proof behind why people are superstitious about it. One of the main theories regarding the stigma behind 13 is that during the Last Supper of Jesus Christ there were 13 people present, the 13th seat apparently being occupied by the betrayer, Judas. Judas is widely associated as being a sinner and a liar. This theory is easy to believe and makes sense, however seems limited to people who practice a certain faith, therefore it may not be entirely valid. A second theory has been presented by a historian named Vincent Foster Hopper, who claims, “that the Jews murmured 13 times against God in the exodus from Egypt, that the thirteenth psalm concerns wickedness and corruption, that the circumcision of Israel occurred in the thirteenth year." (Conradt). This again, however is a biblical reference and some people may not agree with it. As a whole, there is not much substantial evidence regarding why people have superstitions so specific like this one, but there are indeed many theories on it.

Unbeknownst to most people, superstitions can also be positive as well. For example, people cross their fingers to bring good luck, or they have items such as horseshoes in their homes. One of the most common examples of a positive superstition in our culture today is throwing salt over the left shoulder for good luck. In the Last Supper painting by acclaimed painter Leonardo da Vinci, Judas is depicted as knocking over salt onto the table. Knocking over salt is said to bring bad luck, and according to an article from How Stuff Works, this is because, “Judas betrayed Jesus Christ in the Bible, people began associating salt with lies and disloyalty” (Ronca). This is why throwing salt over the left shoulder can be seen as a way to get rid of the devil, who some claim is waiting on your shoulder to tempt you. Overall, this superstition is one people believe in because they presume it can reverse bad luck and bring them better fortune.

In conclusion, there is not a plethora of hard evidence to back up why people believe in superstitions. Instead it is deemed as something that people have been doing for centuries without always knowing the reasons behind why they do it. From the research that has been found, it seems as though the majority of humans react to superstitions, whether they be positive or negative, just because it a human way of thinking.

The author's comments:

This piece seemed like a relative topic to research due to the fact that Halloween is coming up. I also was very interested in this topic because superstitions affect everyone everyday, yet we do not know why.

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