Happy New Year ... Pass the Black-Eyed Peas

The value – and danger – of subscribing to superstitions.

Horseshoe with a clover on top of it
By SHARE

There are certain occasions in life when the superstitious are apt to get more so, and those who aren't may adopt a custom or two – after all, it can't hurt to avoid walking under that ladder or in the path of a black cat ... or can it?

A new year is one of those occasions (as is pregnancy and any other moment of stress or particular foreboding). For the sake of good luck and prosperity in the year ahead, cultures worldwide will take on a trove of traditions: among them, Southerners serve up black-eyed peas, Italians dish on lentils and Japanese cook soba noodles; Greeks smash pomegranates on their front doorstep.

What's going on here? Managing a fear of the unknown, aka the future. Now, you can try to cope with that reality a la Donald Rumsfeld, who famously and funnily outlined a logical matrix of knowns and unknowns. Or you can do what pretty much everyone else in the world does – subscribe to magical thinking now and again.

[Read: How to Cope With Fear of Flying.]

"When people feel like they have control, they're happier, they feel better," says Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. So, adopting a superstition can ease anxiety and provide a sense of control, she says – "even if it doesn't make any sense, just a belief could actually help in that regard."

She cites, for example, research by German psychologist Lysann Damisch, who studied the influence of superstitions on performance. Inspired by the behavior of athletes, who are legendary for clinging to lucky charms – Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina basketball team shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform – Damisch led an experiment in which one set of superstitious people was separated from their lucky charm before a memory test, while another was allowed to retain it; in the latter case, subjects performed better.

As Risen explains it, the power lies not in the talisman itself, but in the optimism it engenders among its believers. "If I feel like I'm going to do well, I actually try harder and it turns out I do do better," she says.

[See: 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100.]

In Risen's research, she has studied the power of rituals for removing a jinx. Based on the widespread use of avoidant actions such as spitting or throwing salt, Risen co-authored a study of University of Chicago undergraduates, who she notes "don't tend to be a superstitious group." The subjects were asked to tempt fate and then practice a variety of avoidant behaviors – throwing a ball or knocking on wood – to jettison the jinx. Turns out, they worked, says Risen, explaining that these actions relieved anxiety associated with hubris.

That's not to say there is no cost associated with rituals, particularly if they are taken to extremes. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, engage repeatedly in ritualized behaviors to relieve anxiety – the rituals work so well to provide short-term relief that they become a go-to coping mechanism but one that never allays the underlying issue.

You don't have to suffer from OCD to experience the sadder side of superstitions. A sports fan wedded to watching games in a particular chair may miss out on seeing them in a different setting, Risen says.

Still, in 99 percent of people, superstitious behavior is a normal and healthy aspect of life, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, psychology professor at University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

"There's nothing wrong with engaging in superstitions as long as you don't let them be too real," she says. "Our thoughts govern our emotions to a large extent, and if your thought is, 'If I don't do this, something bad will happen,'" then you could be setting yourself up for distress by blaming yourself for something that was never in your control, she explains.

The key is to recognize the limits of superstitions and to "distinguish reality from this magical thinking," Whitbourne says. As she puts it, bringing your lucky pencil to an exam isn't going to help you if you didn't actually study. On the other hand, wearing your lucky shoes to an interview may boost your confidence – in turn, "you probably go in with a better attitude and may in fact get that job."