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The role of superstitions in our lives

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DECEMBER 17, 2022

he other day, walking back to my dorm while on the phone with a friend, I found myself in disbelief at the three large turkeys on the lawn right in front of me. Although this may be a common sight to those from Berkeley, I wasn’t used to seeing any birds besides the usual finches, seagulls and pigeons during my daily life. I stayed on the phone, standing outside my dorm in amazement at the large birds before me. As I watched the turkeys and shared my ongoing shock with my friend on the phone, two dogs walked by the turkeys, scaring them so much that they frantically sprinted across the street and, to my horror, almost got hit by a car. 

As they crossed, my brain was immediately taken back to the old nursery rhyme about why the chicken crossed the road. Sure, these were turkeys and not chickens, but as they are both two non-flying birds, I don’t find it surprising that my brain brought up that childhood nursery rhyme. I realized, smiling, that I now had an answer to that age-old question. 

The fact that such a random event had allowed me to answer a previously unanswerable question not only brought a smile to my face but also posed a new, perhaps more complicated question to me: Is it possible that the nursery rhymes and superstitions that we are taught at a young age are still affecting our lives as adults? As I scourged for an answer, I found numerous articles about the role and importance of superstitions in human psychology. 

Is it possible that the nursery rhymes and superstitions that we are taught at a young age are still affecting our lives as adults?

When I was growing up, nursery rhymes took over most bedtime reading and forwarded storylines in movies, and the same question of “why did the chicken cross the road” was highly debated in class. These ideas can allow for structure in life and relieve people of anxiety by assuring them that because they didn’t walk under a ladder that day, or because a black cat did not cross their path, they will not have bad luck. So ingrained are these concepts that the seemingly unlucky “13” has made its way into — or rather, out of — architecture and business. As Ana Sandoiu states in a Medical News Today article, airlines may skip a 13th aisle and “80% of high-rise buildings all over the world lack a 13th floor.”

Superstitions are viewed as irrational beliefs that deal with supernatural ideas and stem from a fear of the unknown. They can also act as a form of comfort to the human experience. An example of this is seen in the power and importance people bestow on good luck charms. Good luck charms carry the promise that they will bring the owner success — whether it be through a necklace that must always be worn during tests or a rabbit foot dangling from a keychain that is carried everywhere. Good luck charms can be anything that the owner finds helpful, but the power of these charms and how the charm is meaningful all relies on the person who places this importance. These charms allow people to find confidence when taking stressful exams or going into interviews — situations where they have less control. This form of self-comfort affects even those performing at the highest levels in sports and education. Ana Sandoiu describes how golf players and people participating in memory games were more successful when observed “making gestures, such as keeping one’s fingers crossed, or uttering words, such as ‘break a leg’ or ‘good luck,’ that boosted the participants’ performance.” These small actions facilitated an increase in self-confidence. Sandoiu delves further, stating that “these performance benefits are produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy. Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

Superstitions, although unreal, possess the power to ease anxiety and questions about the unknown. Each person has their own way of dealing with anxiety and working toward having control over uncertain situations. For instance, the act of “knocking on wood” has been used throughout my life, whenever someone mentioned that something bad could happen. Knocking on wood is a way to “prevent” whatever bad thing is being discussed from happening — an attempt to calm and reassure oneself. Eric Hamerman writes, “When people feel the world is out of their control, they look for external sources of control – superstitions are really a reaction to feeling out of control.” He goes on to note that “people like to put a sense of control around chaos or uncertainty.”

“When people feel the world is out of their control, they look for external sources of control – superstitions are really a reaction to feeling out of control.” — Eric Hamerman 

Superstitions are intertwined with horoscopes in this same manner. A horoscope is an astrological diagram that shows the position of the sun, moon and planets when and where a person is born. Each person has their own unique horoscope that not only comes with the positioning of space but also has its own crystal, flower and personality characteristics. The recent rise in knowledge about zodiac signs has created a need for people to disclose zodiac signs in an effort to find compatibility. People have grown to care about a potential partner’s sign, which may play an important factor when deciding who to let into their lives. This phenomenon showcases the power of myth over people when they hope to have a grasp over their relationships or excuse possible reasons for why someone is acting in a specific way. 

The value of superstitions is seen directly among UC Berkeley students. Students rolling down 4.0 lawn and making sure to avoid walking over the campus seals are a clear depiction of the fake feeling of control that superstitions carry. These actions showcase a “why not?” mindset: why not roll down the lawn in case the myths are true? Why not avoid stepping on the seal if my GPA has the possibility of increasing? But the underlying question, perhaps more important than “why not,” is “what if” — what if the superstition is true? Stuart Vyse discusses this “why not” mindset in his book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. He brings up how once people know of a superstition people are more inclined to believe in it than to “tempt fate.” He argues that by following popular superstitions, people are choosing not to play with fire, as “the costs of abiding by the superstition are very low compared with the potential outcome.” There is a cost-benefit analysis at play with superstitions. This is shown through the idea that doing the small act that the superstition asks for seems better than dealing with the potential negative event that would’ve occurred otherwise. Superstitions carry a tradeoff: is submerging into these superstitions worth preventing fate from running its natural course? 

But is there harm to these superstitious behaviors? Although superstitions can be powerful tools to feel in control during unknown situations, there is also a sense of power that can be found in going against superstitious beliefs. Black cats don’t have to be a sign of a bad omen but can instead make your day better. By denying ladders and cats the ability to ruin your day completely, you are granting yourself the power to control your “destiny.” This change of perspective looks toward the good instead of the bad, which is a valuable mindset when going through the day-to-day experiences of life. 

Even though many do not take superstitions seriously, I believe that if these small actions can bring people so much comfort in the unknown, then they are vital aspects of our society. Superstitious beliefs have the ability to bring people together, like when we all say “bless you” when someone sneezes. Traditions like these have changed from making sure the devil doesn’t snatch your soul to showing that you are there and caring for someone, even if it’s a stranger on the street. This community that has been created showcases the power put into the external and the mythological, seen throughout cultures, religions and belief systems, all aiding in bringing comfort to the human experience.

Contact Keely Chambers at 


DECEMBER 17, 2022