Do black cats and broken mirrors make you nervous? Before you laugh it off as mere superstition, hear what CyberShrink has to say. And then throw some salt over your left shoulder.
But jokes aside – no one finds it funny when cricketers have lucky caps, or when schoolkids take lucky charms into an exam room.
Even the most cynical among us usually has at least one of these rituals – whether it entails not stepping on the cracks of pavement blocks, muttering a few specific words before an event, or using a rhyme to choose the right slot machine at a casino.
But why do we do this?
Much of bad luck is random
“We all have great difficulty in admitting and accepting that much of the bad luck that happens in life is random,” says Health24’s CyberShrink. “By going through certain rituals, we can pretend to ourselves that luck is not random and that we can somehow exercise control over it by warding it off in this manner.”
The essential thing then seems to be the exercising of control – often over an uncontrollable world.
CyberShrink likens this to a watered-down version of the rituals so often used by people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A large portion of their day is passed in going through rituals that are aimed at warding off bad luck, grim occurrences and infectious diseases.
It’s all about control
He mentions that the fear of chaos underlies all of this and that even people without OCD will go to great lengths to maintain an illusion that they are somehow in control and that they can ward off the random bad luck dished out by fate, or by a wrathful God or gods.
“It is interesting that even among people who are not religious at all, the idea of the appeasing of fate has not disappeared. It is also interesting to note that many of the superstitions that have persisted in our society – indeed in societies across the world – have their origins not in the Christian tradition, but in pagan rites and rituals that have somehow survived,” he added.
He also noted that people - and in experiments, animals too - tended to associate whatever they were doing at a particular time with what happened to them. For instance, if you were busy washing the bathroom floor when you heard you had won a competition, washing the bathroom floor was deemed to be a 'lucky' thing to do. Or if you were cooking tomato soup when the ceiling fell in, the tomato soup was deemed 'unlucky'.
Diseases, injuries, accidents, deaths
Another noteworthy thing about superstitions is that they never have much to do with things that we can control – such as choosing not to go out into the rain without your raincoat. Not doing this could be put down to mere stupidity. Superstitions only have to do with seemingly random things – diseases, injuries, accidents, deaths and so forth.
He noted that the Black Plague that swept through Europe in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries not only wiped out a third of the population of northern Europe – it also loosened the stranglehold of the Catholic church on the population.
They watched saints and sinners being struck down in equal numbers and assumed that disease could therefore not be a punishment for sins. As virtue could not save the righteous, then maybe other things could.
Rituals create safe spaces
But history aside, clinging to our superstitious beliefs gives us the illusion that we can create a certain measure of safety in our lives.
“If Friday the thirteenth is unlucky, it follows then that Thursday the twelfth will be fine, and so will Saturday the fourteenth. These superstitions give us the feeling that there are indeed areas of safety,” according to CyberShrink.
But what he also remarked on was that the punishments seemed so harsh – seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror. And there doesn’t ever seem to be a remedy built in. If the fates have it in for you, it’s just not your day.
All things considered, it might be an idea to put in leave for the day on any Friday that falls on the 13th, to stock up on some salt and avoid the neighbour’s black cat. (Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated July2012)