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December 11, 2019
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

It’s Only Superstition…

December 11, 2019 16:13 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW  [About the Author]

In a world that bestows unpredictable gifts, treasured and otherwise, anxiety is a common response. Even for those with few expectations concerning their personal power or ability to change the natural order, that which is uncertain can be unsettling.  What to do?

For many, a turn to magical thinking, which is superstitious in nature, is the last thread on which to depend.  80% of buildings worldwide have no 13th floor and 70% of students in the United States rely on some sort of good luck charm.  Four out of five athletes have lucky rituals.  It’s hard to forget Michael Jordan and his lucky college shorts (worn under his professional basketball uniform).  Some researchers believe that hoarders are practicing a form of superstitious behavior.

The theory is that ancient man developed magical thinking in order to survive.  A change in the breeze could have been just that, but it could also could have meant that a lion was lurking nearby.  It wasn’t a good idea to play “chicken” with breezes.

For those who believe in lucky amulets and behaviors, their faith often lowers anxiety.  As with most things, moderation is essential. When magical thinking hinders problem-solving behavior, the result may be disastrous.  In an extreme form, this approach to life can lead to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  “If I recheck that the stove is off 5 times after I leave the house, the house will not burn down”.  That may be true, but lightening could strike and one risks running late for important appointments.

The practice of saying “God bless you” came from ancestors who believed that the devil could steal your soul if you sneezed. Five thousand years ago, in Egypt, the triangle was considered to be sacred — example: the pyramids.  The triangle represented a trinity of the gods.  A ladder that leans against a wall forms a triangle.  The triangle that is interfered with when a person walks under the leaning ladder becomes contaminated.  Mere humans should take care to avoid disrespecting the gods! Thus, it is bad luck to walk under a leaning ladder.

For those who are afraid to tempt fate, success becomes a problematic issue.  A fear of being happy is called “cherophobia”. It’s complicated.  If one is not grateful for assistance from supernatural forces, these forces may become hostile. On the other hand, if an individual is “too” happy, it is, frequently, believed that the superhuman managers will punish what is assumed will be seen as arrogance. Pomposity begs for an undoing.  The play, Oedipus Rex, is a classic example of this descent from greatness.

Overconfidence can also lead to a hapless outcome.  When cognition — the way one accesses and interprets information — becomes skewed, it is easy to miss important details.  Take the driver who knows the road so well that he/she doesn’t even notice the “road closed” sign.  The problem speaks for itself. 

Ignoring details and relying on superstitious faith may well interfere with a problem-solving state of mind.  It is possible to take two unrelated situations and believe that there is correlation between them.  If it rains on the day an individual plays the lottery and that individual wins, there is a good chance that lottery-playing for that person will be restricted to rainy days.

It is important to take a look at the plus side of a modified reliance on signs, signals, rituals and omens.  A positive state of mind can help to achieve a desired outcome.  While Michael Jordan counted on his lucky shorts to inspire his performance on the basketball court, he also practiced his skills and, one can guess, paid attention to most, if not all, of the conditions that would lead to a win.     

Arbitrary shifts in circumstances can increase anxiety.  Confidence in non-factual ideas and rituals can restore a certain amount of equilibrium.  The paradox is that when those events occur, the locus of control becomes external.  Logic might lead one to believe that only something that is influenced by human thought or action would lead to a feeling of security.  In fact, when certainty of individual power fades, a belief in something larger, something paranormal, can, at times, restore presence of mind.  Again, the maintenance of balance is crucial when seeking a positive outcome.

People who believe they are lucky tend to interpret life events differently than those who don’t.  In fact, the latter suffer increased anxiety for reasons that hold no merit.  Those who believe that “the best is yet to come” tend to have, as a rule, more fortitude than those like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Eeyore who lives under a dark cloud.

There is scientific evidence that patients who are given placebos feel better because their brain releases dopamine. Delivered in the ventral tegmental area of the brain, dopamine affects the pleasure centers and can be a powerful motivator.

Practitioners in diverse fields encourage their clients to visualize their goals.  Imagery is a powerful agent in advertising, athletics, and education.  Therapists who work with the mind employ relaxation and visualization techniques to increase confidence and motivation while diminishing anxiety.  In the words of astronomer, astrophysicist , and science educator, Carl Sagan, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were.  But without it we go nowhere.”

For those who rely on stars, signs and signals it is as if the universe is perpetually focused on the individual.  This is, of course, a blessing and a curse.  Cognitive/Behavioral therapy is especially effective in freeing individuals who are virtually paralyzed by the belief that every thought is attended to and followed by consequences.

On the other hand, if one feels protected by this vigilance from unseen worlds, life, itself, is more sustaining.

Twelve step programs encourage those who seek sobriety to recognize that there are forces more powerful than the individual.  Some spurn this idea, others embrace it.  In general, it is less lonely to believe in outside forces.  We are accompanied as we enter the world.  It has been reported that patients in hospice care can be comforted by the belief that they will be escorted through the exit.

Regardless of ethical and philosophical preferences, elbow grease and hope propel men/women to reach for their highest potential.




Burn, S, PhD. (10/16/18) “Very Superstitious”  psychology


Dagnall, N (07/02/18) “The Scientific Reason Why You Still Believe in Superstitions”


Dodgson, L (04/09/18) “Cherophobia is The Fear of Being Happy And It’s more Common Than You Think”


Klosowski, T (05/03/12) “How Superstitions, Placebos And Rituals Help You To Achieve Your Goals”


Mills, C (06/08/11) “Superstitions Have Evolutionary Basis”


Sandoiu, A (09/13/19) “How do Superstitions Affect Our Psychology and Well-Being?”


Sugay, C (10/07/19) “Can we Have Too Much of a Good Thing?” positive

About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

I bring with me +30 years of experience as a clinician. My Masters degrees are from: Assumption College, Worcester, MA, Master of Arts in Psychology & Counseling/ and Boston University School of Social Work, Boston, MA, an MSW in Clinical Social Work. This is the 11th year I have written a monthly newsletter that is sent to approximately 500 individuals. The archive can be found on my website,

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