My Favorite Things: Very Superstitious

Posted inCreative Voices

Are you superstitious?

That’s another of those characteristics that we’re hesitant to acknowledge. After all, look at the definition:

Webster’s primarily defines the word in two ways:

a) a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation;

b) an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition.

The secondary definition:

a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.

Let’s see…”ignorance,” “fear of the unknown,” “trust in magic,” “irrational attitude toward the supernatural,” ideas “maintained despite evidence to the contrary.” Those are mostly not qualities we want applied to ourselves!

It’s pretty hard for us modern people to agree that we use this framework to make sense of the world. So, most of us say, “nah…not really…I’m not superstitious.”

At least, that’s what our Rider says. Remember, The Rider is a metaphorical way of describing our conscious experience of ourselves as decision-makers, as agents who are rationally in control of our lives. Beliefs in magic or making decisions despite contrary evidence is not The Rider’s way. The Rider is the agent I call “I” or “me.” The Rider uses logic. Thinking.

Ah, but then there’s The Elephant. The Elephant is that powerful aspect of our minds that unconsciously makes decisions and enables actions “without thinking about it.” The Elephant reacts to the world instinctively in order to stay safe and solve problems in the most efficient way possible. Logic takes way more time and energy than The Elephant wants to allocate. The Elephant uses intuition. Feeling.

Over evolutionary timescales, our species has developed little bundles of intuitive problem-solving algorithms that we’ve passed along across generations. How did we, for example, come to associate breaking a mirror with seven years of bad luck? As is so often the case, this one has origins in Greek and Roman culture. For the Greeks, a human soul was revealed through the person’s reflection in water or on a shiny metal object. The soul was out there, vulnerable, in the reflection. Glass mirrors were created in around 300 CE and the Romans determined that bad luck would befall anyone who broke one. But, not forever. The Romans believed the body renewed itself every seven years (a pretty modern way of thinking about cell replacement!) so that the original body of the mirror-breaker would be entirely switched out in that time period. Hence, seven years bad luck per broken mirror!

Of course there are hundreds of these superstitions in every culture. It seems we can’t help but provide ways of foretelling and controlling the future. We’ve connected good or bad fortune with animals (black cat cross your path?, carry a rabbit’s foot?), numbers (13 and 17 are particularly bad!), objects (indoor open umbrellas, horseshoes!), or actions (walking under ladders). Every culture has its own “supernatural” ways to explain the good or bad things that happen to people.

No matter how hard we might try, it’ would be practically impossible for us to completely rid ourselves of some vestiges of these superstitions.

And, why should we?

Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? What’s wrong with wearing your lucky sweater on a job interview? Most of the time our Elephant’s inherent superstitiousness is harmless. Just go with it!

And, EVEN THOUGH I KNOW THAT WHAT I SAY HAS NO AFFECT ON THE OUTCOME, I’m absolutely not going to say anything about the Pittsburgh Steelers making the NFL playoffs this year!

But, if I should slip, I’ll be sure not to tempt fate by immediately knocking on wood!

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Header photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash.