Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall… —Stevie Wonder
Two years ago, disemboweled monkeys started appearing atop poles in villages across Cambodia.
For whatever reason, the grisly talismans were believed to repel COVID-19. Meanwhile on the Subcontinent, rural Indians took to branding themselves with hot irons, a medieval measure intended to ward off sickness. Even in staid and stolid England, frantic subjects thought to stem the contagion by staging violent attacks on dozens of 5G transmitters. There’s no good reason to think that any of those efforts made any difference, but then superstition doesn’t need a good reason.
While the term encompasses a wide range of beliefs and behaviors, at bottom, every superstition amounts to a false conception of cause and effect. Facing problems with no obvious practical solutions, we turn to impractical ones that give us the illusion of control. Superstition is “magical thinking,” the irrational human response when rationality isn’t getting the job done. It’s the Oracle, the rabbit’s foot, the wishing well, the dashboard Buddha.
The ancient Babylonians warned that eating garlic on the second day of the seventh month could lead to a death in the family. The belief that spilling salt brings bad luck has been around since Roman times, at least. In medieval Europe, horseshoes were prized because they were made of witch-repellant iron. Settlers of the American frontier treated warts by unearthing old bones, rubbing them on the affected area, and then reburying them.
Superstitions are habits rather than beliefs. —Marlene Dietrich
In fairness, many ancient superstitions probably crossed a fuzzy line into science simply because the ancients had no way of knowing they were wrong. So what’s our excuse? For all our technical expertise, our social sophistication, our scientific prowess, we’re still throwing figurative chicken bones. The fact is, superstition is in our DNA, as natural as breathing. We like to think we’re too smart, too evolved, to get sucked into all that voodoo nonsense, but we’re not. We may not throw maidens into volcanoes anymore, but each of us has our own little arsenal of mystical life hacks, trivial things we do just because we won’t feel quite comfortable if we don’t. Everybody’s got a lucky shirt, after all, or favorite lotto numbers, or an unshakable bedtime custom that’s as much ritual as routine. As Ms. Dietrich points out, many of our superstitions masquerade as habits.
It should be said that those who dismiss religion as nothing more than a collection of sanctioned superstitions aren’t necessarily wrong. It should also be said that there are important differences between the two. Most religions emphasize individual spirituality centered on a supreme being, while superstitions seek to divine the natural world’s occult intentions and influence or manipulate them by physical means. Also consider that the word “superstition” means “stands beyond,” connoting something separate from us. Religion, by contrast, is a deeply personal belief system, and an integral and highly participatory part of the human experience.
Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy, the mad daughter of a wise mother. —Voltaire
Drawing from extensive polls taken by Gallup and YouGov, we find that about 25 percent of Americans admit to being at least a little superstitious. Interestingly, of the 75 percent describing themselves as not superstitious, almost half agreed that picking up a penny is good luck.
The South is the most superstitious part of the country, the interior West the least, and the West Coast trends to more non-traditional “New Age” superstitions. People under 30 are almost twice as superstitious as people over 30, with superstitions of the young leaning toward encouraging good luck while those of older Americans aim at discouraging bad luck. Among those surveyed, 30 percent knock wood, 27 percent cross their fingers and 18 percent toss spilled salt over their left shoulder. A solid 28 percent think it’s bad luck to break a mirror, 25 percent believe you can “jinx” something by talking about it, 15 percent lay low on Friday the 13th, and 12 percent actually care which piece of the wishbone they end up with. Reservations about walking under a ladder or crossing paths with a black cat tied at 13 percent. Speaking of 13, unease about that number is likely the single most common superstition in the Western world.
It bears mention that both of the above-cited polls were conducted pre-COVID. Sociologists have long acknowledged a strong link between superstition and stress, and many presume that by now those numbers are low by half.
The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses. —Sir Francis Bacon
True, we Americans weren’t searing our flesh with hot metal or toppling transmitters, but we had our share of pagan pandemic peccadilloes just the same. Witness those who wore masks while alone in their car or hiking in the forest. Who believed it was safe to shop in the grocery store but dangerous to host a barbecue for friends in the backyard. So long as we entered a crowded restaurant masked, we could safely dine maskless for hours, and we accepted 6 feet of atmosphere as effective armor against a relentlessly infectious world. While many people complied with those practices only because they were mandated, many others embraced them as powerful protections, which is a powerful example of “magical thinking.”
That said, adhering to symbolic behaviors may have been the only way a lot of folks could function in the face of fear. Superstition comes naturally to us because it has its benefits. In stressful situations, superstitions can calm the mind and ease the spirit, which can enhance real-world performance. Superstitions relieve stress, dispel anxiety, improve focus. Studies show that applicants who interview wearing a lucky garment get the job 30 percent more often. Students do 35 percent better on tests they take with a lucky pen or pencil. Golfers score consistently higher when playing with a lucky golf ball. In uncertain situations, our superstitions help us relax, give us a sense of power, confidence, command. Indeed, superstitions are only a problem when they get in the way of good health and happiness.
So, find a penny, pick it up. At worst you’ll be one cent richer.
If a black cat crosses your path, it signifies that the animal is going somewhere. —Groucho Marx