Science

Are superstitions based on truth?

WRITTEN BY
11/21/22
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Fact Box

  • The American Heritage Dictionary defines superstition as “an irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.”
  • Evolutionary biologist Kevin Foster believes that “among early humans, natural selection favored the superstitious.”
  • In 2016, China’s ruling Communist party, under President Xi Jinping, issued new bans on members believing in “feudal superstitions,” explicitly addressing “Superstitious practices, such as reliance on fortune telling and the traditional Chinese practice of feng shui, go[ing] against the party’s core belief in Marxism, which claims to be founded on the scientific method.”
  • A 2019 Statista survey revealed that 27% of respondents believe that a four-leaf clover is lucky and 11% believe that black cats are unlucky.

Maha (No)

From knocking on wood to reading horoscopes, superstitions have made their way to individuals’ daily routines. However, even when they’re miraculously accurate, they can’t be further from the truth. 

One reason for this is the strong link between superstitions and folktales, myths, and even religious beliefs. 

Friday the 13th, for instance, may relate to Norse mythology. Loki followed the twelve gods to Valhalla, breaking the sanctity of the perfect dozen. Another origin story relates to the Last Supper, where Judas was the 13th attendee. And Jesus was crucified on a Friday.

Even superstitions that may have had some scientific basis in the past have been distorted over time. This is especially true for scientific facts from the East, heavily impacted by political and other kinds of dominance. 

Psychologists like sport psychologist Stephen Graef further believe that the root of superstition is association. Humans may create links between thoughts, feelings, actions, and objects or symbols. 

For instance, athletes may want to recreate their performance during a great game. So, they make associations with everything to justify how they won. However, their hard work made this win possible, not a specific pair of underwear or a lucky charm. 

Moreover, psychologists believe superstitious thinking or behaviors to be a mechanism that benefits individuals emotionally. Studies have proven the positive and negative placebo effects caused by the power of expectations or preconceptions. 

And, finally, a few hits despite many misses don’t add credibility to superstitions. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day. 


Chad (Yes)

Many superstitions, even those that seem absurd, are based on truth. Often, these superstitions are derived from simplified or more easily explained stories that help keep children out of danger but manifest as irrational fears later in life.

For example, we might say that walking under a ladder gives you years of bad luck. This is, of course, untrue, but walking under a ladder is generally not a good idea, as people working on them may drop things, or you could disturb them and cause them to fall. So, instead of explaining all that to a child and dealing with 'well, nobody was up there at the time,' we say it's bad luck.

Another example, in Asia, they say it's bad luck to walk into a house with shoes on. While this seems like a superstition, it has value in keeping the house clean and not tracking germs into the home. Because this fear predates the germ theory of disease, farming people likely noticed that dirty shoes in the house correlated with people getting sick and made up a story to get people to leave their dirty shoes outside.

It is a good idea to look objectively at our superstitions. Some, with value, are likely to have been passed on through generations because they increase overall health and survival--which means they should be encouraged and kept.

Whereas most superstitions are rooted in truth, some may be a relic of a less enlightened era or just plain nonsense--and they should be abandoned due to their causing undue anxiety. However, the baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater, as ideally, people should embrace the common sense that most superstitions appeal to.

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