Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

Black cats are part of many superstitions.

The number 13 is often avoided in public buildings, also floors, doors and this Santa Anita Park horse stall.

Superstition ([Latin superstitio, literally "standing over"; derived perhaps from standing in awe;[1] used in Latin as an unreasonable or excessive belief in fear or magic, especially foreign or fantastical ideas, and thus came to mean a "cult" in the Roman empire)[2][3] is a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge. The word is often used pejoratively to refer to supposedly irrational beliefs of others, and its precise meaning is therefore subjective. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, prophecy and spiritual beings, particularly the irrational belief that future events can be influenced or foretold by specific, unrelated behaviours or occurrences.

To medieval scholars the word was applied to any beliefs outside of or in opposition to Christianity; today it is applied to conceptions without foundation in, or in contravention of, scientific knowledge and logical thought .[4]

Academic and cultural viewpoints

Main article: The psychological study of superstitious behaviour

Superstition and the study of folklore

In the academic discipline of folkloristics the term "superstition" is used to denote any folk belief expressed in if/then (with an optional "unless" clause) format. If you break a mirror, then you will have seven years of bad luck unless you throw all of the pieces into a body of running water. In this usage, the term is not pejorative.

Supersitions are based on general, culturably variable beliefs in a supernatural "reality". Depending on a given culture's belief set, its superstitions may relate to things that are not fully understood or known, such as cemeteries, animals, demons, a devil, deceased ancestors, the weather, gambling, sports, food, holidays, occupations, excessive scrupulosity, death, luck, and/or Spirits. Urban legends are also sometimes classed as superstition, especially if the moral of the legend is to justify fears about socially alien people or conditions.

Superstition and religion

Religious etymology

Superstition, as of today's understanding, is thought to derive from the both meanings of Latin 'superstes' composed on super (over, beyond), -sto (to stand):

  • one who attends, can witness
  • one who survives

The 'superstitio' was the gift of narrating events as if one had attended and survived them. This capability of the 'superstitiosus' was associated with divination, which when not performed by a regular augur, was held in contempt as charlatanism. As a result, the superstitio became synonymous with "despisable religious beliefs", as antithetic with 'religio', the accepted official or traditional religion.

Thus, the English word "superstition," as understood from its original Latin meaning, implies a religion-like belief that stands outside the bounds of clerical religion.

In modern English, the term "superstition" is also used to refer to folkloric belief systems, often with the intention of casting negative, derogatory, or belittling scorn upon another culture's concept of the spiritual world.

Religious competition

In keeping with the Latin etymology of the word, religious believers have often seen other religions as superstition. Likewise, Atheists, agnostics, and skeptics often see all religious belief as a form of superstition. Thus, for instance, Edmund Burke, the great Irish orator, once said, "Superstition is the religion of weak minds".

Religious practices are most likely to be labelled "superstitious" by outsiders when they include belief in extraordinary events, supernatural interventions, apparitions or the efficacy of charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens, and prognostications.

Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. "Such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) was what the Romans meant by 'superstition' (Veyne 1987, p 211). For Christians just such fears might be worn proudly as a name: Desdemona.

The Roman Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states superstition "in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion" (para. #2110).

The Catechism clearly dispels commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:

Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. Cf. Matthew 23:16-22 (para. #2111)

Superstition and magic

Superstitions differ from magic spells in that the former are generally passive if/then constructs while the latter contain formulae, recipes, petitions, prayers, and enchantments for effecting future outcomes by means of supernatural, symbolic, and perhaps non-causal activities.

People who otherwise accept scientific de-mystification of the supernal world and do not consider themselves to be occultists or practitioners of magic, still may consider that it is "better to be safe than be sorry" and observe or transmit some or many of the superstitions endemic to their cultures.

Superstition and psychology

In 1948, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he describes his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other behaviours. Because these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons' actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans.[5]

Skinner's theory regarding superstition being the nature of the pigeons' behaviour has been challenged by other psychologists such as Staddon and Simmelhag, who theorised an alternative explanation for the pigeons' behaviour.[6]

Despite challenges to Skinner's interpretation of the root of his pigeons' superstitious behaviour, his conception of the reinforcement schedule has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. Originally, in Skinner's animal research, "some pigeons responded up to 10,000 times without reinforcement when they had originally been conditioned on an intermittent reinforcement basis."[7] Compared to the other reinforcement schedules (e.g. fixed ratio, fixed interval), these behaviours were also the most resistant to extinction.[7] This is called the partial reinforcement effect, and this has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. To be more precise, this effect means that, whenever an individual performs an action expecting a reinforcement, and none seems forthcoming, it actually creates a sense of persistence within the individual.[8] This strongly parallels superstitious behaviour in humans because the individual feels that, by continuing this action, reinforcement will happen; or that reinforcement has come at certain times in the past as a result of this action, although not all the time, but this may be one of those times.

From a simpler perspective, natural selection will tend to reinforce a tendency to generate weak associations. If there is a strong survival advantage to making correct associations, then this will outweigh the negatives of making many incorrect, "superstitious" associations.[9]

See also

Articles about superstitions

Articles presenting various theories about why people are superstitious


  • Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of Superstitions
  • Sagan, Carl, 1995. The Demon-Haunted World : Science As a Candle in the Dark New York: Random House
  • Hyatt, Harry Middleton. "Folk-Lore o Adams County Illiniois"
  • Planer, Felix E. Superstition, 1988, New York: Prometheus Books
  • Puckett, Newbell Niles. "Folk Beleifs of the Southern Negro"
  • Veyne, Paul. 1987 A History of Private Life: 1. From Pagan Rome to Byzantium.

External links

Superstition sites

These articles examine beliefs, faiths, and superstitions from a respectful and informational viewpoint:

Anti-superstition sites

These articles examine beliefs, faiths, and superstitions from a negative and debunking viewpoint:

Some of the text on this page was formerly from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. (1989) Oxford English Dictionary, Second, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  2. (1982) Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press.
  3. Turcan, Robert (1996). The Cults of the Roman Empire, Nevill, Antonia (trans.), pp 10-12, Oxford, England: Blackwell.
  4. Jolly, raylene seaton; Raudvere, Catharina & Peters, Edward (2001) Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. x.
  5. Skinner, B. F. (1948). 'Superstition' in the Pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38(2), 168-172.
  6. Staddon, J. E., & Simmelhag, V. L. (1971). The 'supersitition' experiment: A reexamination of its implications for the principles of adaptive behaviour. Psychological Review, 78(1), 3-43.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Schultz & Schultz (2004, 238).
  8. Carver & Scheier (2004, 332).
  9. Kevin R. Foster; Hanna Kokko, "The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour", Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0981,