Free Press Journal

How superstitions are formed in the mind


Superstitions arise and persist because of some mind features. Dr SHRIRANG BAKHLE sheds light on some of them.

Our family was enjoying a cricket match. Indian batsmen were playing well. I noticed that my cousin is not watching. So I called her to come and watch the wonderful batting. She refused to come. She says whenever our batsmen are batting well, if she comes to watch, a batsman becomes out! She says that it has happened twice. She laughs half-heartedly, saying, “I know it is illogical to think that there is any link between me watching and batsman getting out but I don’t want to take a chance.”

Let us try to understand what happened – how she developed this superstition. During the earlier two matches, the batsmen were playing well and everyone was happy. Then came event 1: she came to watch. This was followed by event 2: Batsman got out. This lead to a sudden major sadness. Later, in the third match, when she was called out to watch, she remembered the two events and the intense sadness.

We humans keep trying to identify cause and effect relationships all the time. We feel that if event 2 occurs after the event 1, then event 1 could be the cause of event 2. For example, if you ate spicy food last night (event 1) and you developed stomach upset today (event 2), you may feel there is a cause-effect relationship between event 1 and event 2.

It is important to realize that in this case, the cause-effect relationship is LOGICAL. We can understand HOW the spicy food disturbed the stomach. But suppose, your friend, a shopkeeper, says that one particular neighbour is ‘lucky’ for him. If he sees that person in the morning, he does more business on that day. How do we know whether to call this a superstition or not? There is no LOGICAL cause –effect relationship between the two events. There is only a presumed MAGICAL cause-effect relationship between the two events. It is not possible to explain HOW the event 1 can cause event 2.

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So, the first mind feature that gives rise to superstitions is believing MAGICAL cause-effect relationships. Do you believe that if a cat crosses your path when you are going out for some work, that work will not get done? There is no LOGICAL cause-effect relationship between cat crossing path and work not getting done. But if you believe in MAGICAL cause-effect relationship, then you might feel that possibly there COULD be some relationship.Cat Friday13 C

But so many scientific theories start out as hypothetical hunches or feelings that may be there is some cause-effect relationship between two events. For example, Barry Marshal, a young doctor from Australia had a hunch that ‘H. Pylori’, a type of bacteria, causes stomach ulcers. But gastroenterologists did not believe this cause-effect relationship. Finally, as a desperate method to prove his theory, he drank a solution containing the bacteria and proved that he got stomach ulcers as a result!

This brings us to the next mind feature that gives rise to superstitions: the lack of willingness to try and prove / disprove the hunch about cause-effect relationship. A friend of mine purchased a new mobile. Then, happily, he called his father to tell him about it. It so happened that his father developed some medical complications that day and he passed away. As he sadly recalled various events that happened on that sad day, he suddenly remembered how he had made a phone call to his father from his new mobile. In his grief, he thought of a possible link between the two events. There is no obvious LOGICAL link between the calling from new mobile and the father’s death. But if a MAGICAL link is considered, then ANY two events can be linked as cause and effect. So he developed this belief that, perhaps, calling someone from his new mobile can lead to the person’s death.

This belief persisted for a long time because he was not willing to experiment to prove or disprove this belief. His intense fear and sadness prevented him from trying the experiment. Then I asked him to call me from his new mobile that he had purchased and kept away. He agreed to do the experiment and called me and the superstitious belief was broken.

The concept that a person is ‘lucky’ feels good to everyone: the person who is considered lucky and the people who have this belief. But this concept of ‘lucky person’ also has the negative side: some persons are considered ‘unlucky’ for no fault of theirs. Suppose a new a new daughter-in-law arrives and something good happens. She is considered ‘lucky’. But if second daughter-in-law arrives and some unrelated bad event happens, she is labelled as unlucky!
This is how superstitions arise and persist because of some mind features.