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We all know that superstitious behavior is irrational. Stuart Vyse, author of "Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition," points out, "When we are looking for ways to enhance our luck, we often see connections that are not there."
Due to confirmation bias, people tend to look for days when their lucky shirt gave them great fortune and overlook the times it didn't work. They are also more likely to interpret ambiguous evidence, such as their favorite sports team playing well but losing the game, as support for their superstitious theories.
It's also no surprise that superstitious behavior can be problematic. It can create fear where there was none before or even replace active, more productive behaviors. Even worse, it can manifest as a ritual that people become dependent on.
Yet despite the negatives, there are some real benefits to being superstitious. It can create actual results — not through magic, but through psychology.
This is because s uperstitions change the way people behave, says Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her ongoing research suggests that engaging in a ritual in a high-anxiety situation can make people feel less anxious and therefore perform better than others.
"Believing you are lucky can improve performance at a skilled task," explains Vyse. In a laboratory study, golfers who'd been told that the ball they were using was lucky, and putted significantly better than golfers who hadn't. Their perception of the lucky golf ball reduced their stress, and therefore increased their confidence and initiative during the game.
Superstitions provide meaningful psychological benefits because they give us an illusion of control, especially in uncertain situations. Donald Saucier, professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University, says, "We can now believe that we can influence events, whether or not we actually can." With this sense of power, we can manage difficult emotions, such as helplessness.
According to new research from the University of Chicago and National University of Singapore, avoidant actions — superstitious gestures that involve pushing away from the body, such as throwing salt, spitting, or knocking on wood — are extremely effective for helping people feel protected from negative outcomes , especially in situations where they are trying to undo bad luck.
This is because exerting force away from the self allows people to simulate the experience of having avoided bad fortune. Avoidant actions make people feel like they've gotten rid of the bad mojo, and it can be stress-relieving for them to connect their abstract fears to physical movements. They also have less clear mental images of bad events, which allows them to focus on more positive things.
The next time you are in an uncertain situation, you might just find your superstitions coming in handy.
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