When Bill Steiger was growing up, a boarding school teacher told him that if he passed the salt without the pepper, a sailor would die at sea. Steiger's grandmother warned him not to pick up stray coins that were tails up or risk bad luck, and his mother ate pork and sauerkraut every New Year's Day to bring good fortune in the coming year.
This year, people may be more attuned to superstitions than ever — going out of their way to avoid a black cat, knocking on wood for luck or throwing salt over their shoulder to ward off evil.
"About a week ago, I was walking the dog and I saw a penny on the ground that was tails up,” says Steiger, 57, of Tampa, Florida. “Even though it's not necessarily a superstition I believe in, I did not pick up the penny."
A tool to manage anxiety
Though most people recognize logically that superstitious behaviors aren't likely to change fate, harboring unfounded beliefs isn't as silly as it sounds. In fact, superstitions are normal and in some cases may help relieve stress in times of crisis, for instance during a global pandemic, says Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at New York University.
"It's a tool to manage our anxiety,” Balcetis says. “When there's scary stuff happening, our instinctual fight-or-flight mechanisms kick in.”
Superstitions are us choosing the flight path, she says. A fight response would be to accept that something scary is looming and face it. But superstitions allow us to put some distance between ourselves and fear. In fact, most people indulge in magical thinking no matter what's going on in the world. A 2015 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll found that only 24 percent of respondents reported being superstitious, but 60 percent admitted they say “knock on wood.”
As the coronavirus pandemic has surged across the country, Balcetis says she has seen superstitions provide reassurance.
"You can't stamp out COVID, but holding a rabbit's foot in your purse might feel like it brings some control,” she says. “A magical trinket that keeps me safe — it's an illusory sense of control."
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Superstition is actually a survival mechanism for people of all ages. “We can't constantly live with elevated cortisol levels, high blood pressure or fast heart rates,” Balcetis says. Relieving our apprehensions with delusion can actually be a psychological defense tool.
Harmless or harmful?
People are likely using this strategy more than ever right now, says Jane Risen, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
"In these times when life feels more out of control, research suggests that those are the moments that people turn to magical thinking and superstitions more,” she says.
Many superstitions are harmless, though of course that depends on the behaviors a person is engaged in, whether superstition is preventing someone from acting in their own best interests or living life the way they want to.
Joan Delovitch, 77, of Derwood, Maryland, grew up with a superstitious father. She recalled taking a family road trip from Washington, D.C., to New York City as a child. When they reached Baltimore, a black cat crossed in front of the car and “my father wanted to turn around and go home,” Delovitch said. “My mother wouldn't let him.”
Though Delovitch is an animal lover and has had many cats over the years, she's never chosen a black one — something she says could be rooted in her father's view that they draw bad luck.
Avoiding black cats or stepping over a crack in the sidewalk instead of walking on it are innocuous behaviors. But other superstitions could have a negative impact. For example, health workers in Africa have had to battle the superstition that Ebola infections are a result of the evil eye. That belief has often made people unwilling to seek medical help.
One way to ensure superstitions stay on the healthy side, says Risen, especially during this heightened season of crisis, is to channel rituals into meaningful experiences.
For example, Risen says, if one of your habits is calling your children every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., then it can become almost ritualistic, and that creates meaning.
"It would give you a sense of control on some things in life, even though things are really hard right now,” Risen says.
Even experts aren't immune. When Balcetis was in graduate school and turned in an important paper, a professor had her do a strange “wax on, wax off” Karate Kid move over the computer monitor for luck. The paper got rave reviews. Since then she's continued the ritual with her own students for all of the papers she submits.
"To increase the odds,” Balcetis says, “now we also sing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ at the same time that we submit."