Walking under a ladder. A black cat crossing your path. Lighting three cigarettes on a single match. Do these things make you nervous? If so, you’re not alone. Superstition is both a common and powerful thing, and Kansas State researchers have recently been exploring superstitious behavior to understand the hows and whys behind it.
The studies, led by recent Kansas State bachelor’s graduate Scott Fluke along with psychology graduate student Russell Webster and associate professor Donald Saucier, explore the personality traits that lend themselves to degrees of belief in superstition.
In the first study, the researchers conducted questionnaires with 200 undergraduates, asking about how pessimistic they were, whether they believed in chance or fate, if they liked to be in control and other questions. One of the major discoveries was that people who believe that chance and fate control their lives are more likely to be superstitious.
This doesn’t exactly seem like breaking news. After all, those that leave everything in the hands of destiny are more likely to notice small signs and interpret them in ways that seem most meaningful to them.
In the second study the researchers wanted to know how participants reacted to death, and asked them to write about how they felt about their own death. The team was surprised to find that participants’ levels of superstition went down when they thought about their own death, which the researchers attributed to death being a situation of extreme uncertainty.
“We theorized that when people thought about death, they would behave more superstitiously in an effort to gain a sense of control over it,” Fluke said. “What we didn’t expect was that thinking about death would make people feel helpless — like they cannot control it — and that this would actually reduce their superstitious belief.”
This is definitely a bit more interesting.
Death is both an unknown and, in some ways, the great equalizer of humanity (unless you’re talking about the New York Times). With this in mind, I would have been inclined to agree with the study’s theory that thinking about death would lead to an increased level of superstition.
I guess when all is said and done, though, contemplating your own death is extremely scary. Between not knowing what’s in store for us (Heaven? Worm food? Reincarnation? Hell?) and questioning the whens and the hows of our own individual and ultimately unique deaths, throwing salt over your shoulder or looking out for black cats does seem pretty small.
The research team does give tips on how to avoid superstition, which seem pretty much common sense to me:
• Don’t believe in bad luck and take some ownership over what control you do have in situations. Sometimes we use bad luck to let ourselves off the hook, Saucier said, but we should instead focus on what we can do to avoid difficult situations in the first place.
• Be decisive and proactive. People who are less decisive believe in superstition more, Saucier said, and those who are proactive are less superstitious.
• Don’t be in a situation where you have to rely on bad luck. Bad luck would never occur if only good things happened. If something bad happens and you call it bad luck, do it as a coping mechanism after the fact rather than before the event, Saucier said.
While I do believe strongly in karma, I don’t necessarily consider myself a superstitious person per se. I don’t walk under ladders — just in case — but I don’t carry a rabbit’s foot around with me or anything like that. I’m also not sure that the concept of superstition is the most worthy topic for scientific research.
What do you think?