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A Superstition is the irrational belief that future events are influenced by specific behaviors, without having a causal relationship.

Common superstitions from around the world

Examples of superstitions vary greatly from one country to another:

  • A gambler may credit a winning streak in poker to a lucky rabbit's foot or to sitting in a certain chair, rather than to skill or to the law of averages.
  • In Afghanistan it is said that if you see a magpie sitting on a wall, a message will be coming for you.
  • In China people say that one should not sweep or dust on Chinese New Year's Day lest good fortune also be swept away.
  • An airline passenger might believe that it is a medal of St Christopher (traditional patron saint of travellers) that keeps him safe in the air, rather than the fact that airplanes statistically crash very rarely.
  • Brides on their wedding day often do not see their groom until the ceremony, believing that to do so causes bad luck.
  • Some people turn back from a journey if a black cat crosses their path.
  • Among African Americans it is considered unlucky to sweep someone with a broom while cleaning house.
  • Many Americans believe that if you can blow out all of the candles on your birthday cake with one breath while making a silent wish, your wish will come true.
  • In Japan Tetraphobia, the fear of the number 4 is widespread; the number's use is minimized or avoided where possible.
  • In the Philippines,taking a bath and sweeping the floor while in a wake of a dead person is considered as a bad luck.
  • Some Western countries believe in the luck brought by Clover leaf.
  • Triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13, is common among those of European descent.
  • Baseball superstitions are numerous.

Superstition in Numbers

  • The number 666 is feared by many people because of its association to the Devil.
  • 23 is also known to be the Devil's Number,as explained by the 2004 film '23'.
  • Commercial buildings don't have 13th floor,following the belief of its bad luck.Instead,some name the storey as floor 12.5.

Academic and cultural viewpoints

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 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 social science

Superstitions are not defined by the laws or verifiable methods of science, but social scientists have occasionally studied superstitions.

The behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior". He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they continued to perform the same actions:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. ("'Superstition' in the Pigeon", B.F. Skinner, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947 [1])

Skinner suggested that the pigeons believed that they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that the experiment also shed light on human behavior:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else. (Ibid.)

Modern behavioral psychologists have disputed Skinner's "superstition" explanation for the behaviors he recorded. Subsequent research (for instance, by Staddon and Simmelhag in 1971) failed to replicate his results. Eduardo J. Fernandez of the Department of Psychology of Indiana University sought to follow up on Staddon and Simmelhag's debunking of Skinner's hypothesis and to "further contrast superstitious versus functional interpretations of behavior" in pigeons. In a 2004 paper titled "Superstition Re-revisited: An Examination of Niche-Related Mechanisms Underlying Schedule Produced Behavior in Pigeons," he demonstrated that what Skinner had seen as "supersitious" behaviour was accounted for by the natural foraging behaviours of the species he used as test subjcts.

See also


  • 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)