How strange beliefs support our personal sense of power
My best friend growing up had two cats, Sooty and Sweep. As their names suggest, they were black cats. And as one might expect for a town that I called the buckle on the Bible Belt, there was a lot of superstition about their ilk. I had another friend who shrieked when a black cat crossed her path. She was very superstitious, insisting that we mustn’t step on sidewalk cracks or walk under the ladders.
Thankfully, nowaday black cats have no problem finding homes as more people give up their superstition in the wake of black cat adorableness. Still, superstitions prevail and often take strange forms.
In Michael Shermer’s groundbreaking book Why People Believe Weird Things, he explores different realms of superstitious beliefs as they connect to religion or conspiracy. Shermer points out that these beliefs prevail because they support ideologies that in turn connect to power systems.
So, superstitious rituals usually hinge on concepts of self-identity and place in society. After all, many such rituals, such as knocking on wood, are far removed from their Celtic origins. Rather, they’re a mild form of performance art, a means of expressing one’s status and conscientiousness, as well as demonstrating social graces. After all, it’s rude to not say “bless you” after someone sneezes.
When I saw Shermer speak a few years ago, he laid out his idea of the “belief engine” — a relationship between Type I learning, or false negatives, and Type II learning, or false positives. Shermer said that people respond strongly to associations between events, even in their absence, i.e. the lack of a mother’s broken back upon not stepping on a crack. That’s how superstitions arise: by engaging in a ritual that avoids something that would lead to something unfortunate but unlikely, you prove to yourself that your actions successfully avoided the bad luck. It’s a way of asserting personal power.
Of course, superstitions aren’t just designed to avoid misfortune, as the enduring myth of lucky charms shows. The rabbit’s foot has a long and strange history of being used as a talisman, and many people carry around lucky objects of various types. Some studies indicate that using lucky charms can actually boost performance. However, it’s probably not because of any magic. At least, not in the object itself.
Rather, people perform well when they believe that they are empowered to do so. Superstition’s role is in tricking oneself into demonstrating higher confidence and better expressing one’s skills. And that leads to good fortune.
One of the best illustrations of how luck works is in the film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Harry takes a potion of “Felix Felicis,” or “Liquid Luck,” and finds himself behaving erratically, even drunkenly, yet still successfully obtains sensitive information from Professor Slughorn. The reason he does so is because he’s much more open and engaging under the influence, which leads him to abandon his usual reservations and asking pressing questions. In fact, the effects aren’t too different from when Ron thinks he’s drunk on the potion earlier in the film: Believing that he’s under the influence, his confidence increases and he helps win the Quidditch match.
That’s how luck tends to work: you’re more likely to come upon it if you embark on a task with ambition. Similarly, avoidance rituals do tend to make you more cautious and help you avoid bad luck, but not because you performed the ritual: Rather, being careful is just a smart thing to do! Yet by codifying caution in rituals, people can feel an illusion of more control over their lives.