Superstitions Can Improve Your Life, According to Psychologists
Embrace the Supernatural: How Superstitions, Placebos and Rituals Help You to Achieve Your Goals
By By Thorin Klosowski / LifeHacker
Michael Jordan wore his college team's shorts underneath his Bulls uniform because he believed it brought him good luck. If six NBA championships can be considered proof, his superstition worked. It sounds silly (well, it is silly), but it's not all magic.
Why Superstitions and Placebos Change Your Behavior
We should get a working definition of superstition here, because on its own, it's a broad term that encompasses a whole slew of magical thinking. Both Dr. Vyse and Matthew Hudson provided similar definitions, so we'll cobble them together into one:
A superstition is a belief or behavior that's inconsistent with conventional science and attributes functional mental properties into non-mental phenomenon. Essentially, a superstition is a belief that the universe is always watching you and changes depending on your actions or what you're holding. Sounds ridiculous, right? So let's look at why we believe them.
Why We Believe in Superstitions
At their core, superstitions are self-fulfilling prophesies. You plant an idea in your head, allow yourself to believe in magic, and then believe doing something in a particular way or wearing a trinket will help you perform better. This seems insane, but it's a common phenomenon. We have different theories as to why we believe in superstitions, even though most people know they're entirely made-up. Dr. Vyse explains:
Another theory is based on the idea of the "illusion of control," but as Hudson points out, it's about making sense of the world:
As far as the origin of these beliefs, one thought is that we evolved to believe in superstitions based on these pattern recognitions. In an article in New Scientist evolutionary biologist Kevin Foster suggests we learned superstitions based on the need to survive:
Essentially, you have superstitions because you want to believe that you can change your fate, that a little magic in your routine can change the outcome of an event, and because you need a little confidence boost. It's not a bad thing to believe in superstitions and as we'll see in later sections, believing in them can actually boost your performance.
How Placebos Can Boost Mind and Body Performance
It's worth talking briefly about placebos here because superstitions can almost be thought of as placebos. This is especially the case when an object is imbued with properties to heal or give you luck. When you take a placebo your brain can respond by releasing dopamine. On top of other things, dopamine triggers the reward center of the brain and in turn can change a mood. Having a reaction to a placebo is commonly referred to as the placebo effect, something everyone's heard of.
Like superstitions, the placebo effect can generate a subjective outcome. If you believe in an outcome then when it happens you'll connect that to what you did before (wore a good luck charm or took a fake-pill). In some ways the difference between a placebo and a superstition is tiny. Take, for instance, people's insistence that Vitamin C and Echinacea prevent colds, despite no scientific evidence existing for either. Dr. Howard Brody explains this to Psychology Today:
Additionally, as the author at Psychology Today, Steven Kotier points out in his own story, the differences between a placebo and a superstition are hard to define sometimes:
The point is that when you believe doing something to make a difference in an outcome—like taking a fake pill, alternative medicines, wearing a knee sleeve, or knocking on wood—it can increase the chances of a positive outcome. You can actually trigger certain responses in the brain and body that help you meet a certain goal.
When Rituals Turn Into Superstitions
So we have a good understanding of why we believe in superstitions and in turn, how placebos work in a similar fashion. What about those of us who didn't grow up with complex superstitions, but still feel like we have them? For instance, I have to walk to the end of a block, pause for two minutes, then return to an entryway before I have to give a presentation or speak publicly. That sounds like a ritual, but when do these rituals become superstitions? I asked both experts what they thought and they both agreed: it's when you imbue a ritual with magical power. Dr. Vyse explains:
The difference between a ritual and a superstition is in the expected outcome. If you believe that performing your morning ritual or your pre-game routine can alter the outcome then it's a superstition. If you just do it to calm yourself before taking a plunge into an important event, the ritual continues as a ritual. The interesting thing, as Dr. Vyse noted, is that while routines have a psychological benefit, so do superstitions.
Stop Being So Rational and Embrace Your Superstitions
We have a good idea as to why we believe in superstitions and it's partially to help up make sense and feel significant in a massive, confusing world. Can believing in a superstition—whether it's routines or lucky charms—really help us perform better? It turns out, yes. Hudson explains:
The benefits likely come from both the placebo effect and the illusion of control. When you wear a lucky pair of shorts or perform a ritualistic dance before you give a speech, you trigger different parts in your brain that make you more receptive to the changes in the world around you. Wearing those lucky shorts, for instance, gives you a confidence boost. It also makes you visualize a positive outcome.
The Dangers of Superstition (and What You Can Do to Keep Your Relationship Positive)
It's not all positive. Believing deeply in the power of superstitions can have negative effects and believing in unlucky superstitions, like Friday the 13th, black cats, or the ill effects of walking under a ladder have no positive effects whatsoever. In fact, believing in bad luck can have a negative effect because it increases your anxiety for no good reason. Dr Vyse explains:
Overdoing your positive beliefs can also have major, life-altering repercussions. Hudson explains:
Like most things in life, the key here is moderation. The fact that stock trading goes down on Friday the 13th, as does travel, financial deals, and even movie releases isn't healthy. Dr. Vyse has never had a patient call and complain about superstitions taking over their life, but he also stresses that they're best used in tandem with real preparation. For example, a lucky charm on a test is helpful provided you also studied for the test.
The real takeaway here is that despite the fact that most people won't admit it, many of us are superstitious to some degree. Believing in these superstitions isn't a bad thing as long as you use them as a part of larger plan and integrate them into your life in a healthy way. Best of all, believing in superstitions can provide that subtle, but useful boost to your performance on all sorts of tasks.
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