Superstitions, Phobias, Luck and Fear

Over the weekend, I hosted and moderated a discussion group for CFI Toronto, an event called Cafe Skeptique. I was able to choose the topic and while at first it was hard (many possibilites, what did I really want to talk about?). I ended up starting with something kind of general and broad, so as to be more easily accessible. It also gave me a chance to do some research.

I had been on the elevator at work, and the building I work in has no 13th floor. It’s 12A. This honestly bothers me. 13 is just a number. But that is what originally put the topic idea in my head, and when I started researching it, it was pretty interesting to find out the origins.

My talk was structured as follows:
1. What is the difference between superstition and phobia?
2. How do they get started?
3. Are some superstitions or phobias healthy/not terribly unhealthy?
4. How do we combat them?

Let’s start with the definitions for clarity:

Superstition – [1] An irrational belief that an object, action or circumstance can influence the outcome of an event or course of events that it is not logically related to. [2] A belief, practice of rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature or by faith in magic or chance.

Phobia – A persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous

The commonality between the two is that they are both irrational fears, but superstition is more related to luck, whereas a phobia is more just a strong fear leading to avoidance. The other key point to consider is that both of these are “a danger perceived much greater in the mind than in reality“.

Our discussion actually ending up talking about the idea of luck (and karma/fate), and my current stance (because you know, I could always be wrong) is that there is no such thing as any of those. Penn Jillette has a great quote addressing this: “Luck is statistics taken personally“. I have decided after this discussion that my new default will be “may the odds be in your favour” rather than “good luck”. I also refuse to say “bless you” when someone sneezes.

So, back to phobias and superstitions.

I did a bit of research on phobias to see how they were different from superstitions, and I found some interesting information (via

  • There are non-psychological phobias such as photophobia, which is sensitivity to light. It’s not a fear, just an increased sensitivity that would cause a person to avoid that thing (as a migraine sufferer, I get this)
  • Discrimination/Prejudice – homophobia isn’t actually a phobia, those people are not afraid of gay people, they just don’t like them. The term is a misnomer.
  • “Social Phobia” has been changed to “social anxiety disorder” to be more accurate.
  • Phobias are the most common kind of anxiety disorder in industrial nations.
  • 9-18% of people of all ages suffer a phobia, more women than men.
  • It is unusual for them to start after age 30.
  • They are NOT genetically inherited (they are learned fears)
  • Many effective treatments are available, so if you have a strong phobia, you should talk to your doctor.

As for Agoraphobia – I have always heard this one cited as “a fear of wide open spaces”, and while that’s part of it, it’s a bit inaccurate/misleading. My research indicated that it is actually a fear of situations that you can’t control, whether that be lost in a wide open space, or stuck in a crowded mall (which yes is a big open space, but not empty and void of people).

Wikipedia states:

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterized by anxiety in situations where the sufferer perceives certain environments as dangerous or uncomfortable, often due to the environment’s vast openness or crowdedness. These situations include, but are not limited to, wide-open spaces, as well as uncontrollable social situations such as the possibility of being met in shopping malls, airports, and on bridges.

Although mostly thought to be a fear of public places, it is now believed that agoraphobia develops as a complication of panic attacks.

How do superstitions start?

Lucky charms and superstitious behaviours are typically efforts made by a person to feel more in control of their circumstances, it makes them feel more reassured that they’ve done what they can to get the result they desire. It is a belief than a specific object or action can negate unwanted experiences or outcomes.

Here are the origins of some popular superstitions (thanks to

1. The Number Thirteen – Seems to mostly stem from The Last Supper where there were 13 dinner guests and one got murdered. There is also a tale from Norse Mythology where Loki was the 13th guest and got killed in a brawl. Thus the number 13 is considered bad luck.
2. Black Cats – were believed to be servants to witches, and if they served long enough, they would become a witch themselves. To cross their path was to attract bad luck.
3. Opening an umbrella indoors – since an umbrella is meant to protect us from the elements (outdoors), opening it inside is thought to “offend the spirit of the umbrella” (yes, my research actually said this), which will bring bad luck.
4. Walking under a ladder – “The most likely theory is that a ladder forms a triangle when propped against a wall. The triangle symbolizes the Holy Trinity. When you walk through it, you effectively insult the Trinity and attract the Devil”. After I read this to the group, I commented “gee, it really seems much easier to just not believe in the Devil, huh?”.
5. Breaking a mirror – this is believed to bring 7 years of bad luck, because essentially people used to believe that spirits got trapped in mirrors when they died and to break the mirror released the spirit and that spirit got into you. But since the body is thought to renew every 7 years (by cell replacement), that’s why the bad luck only lasts that long. Though that isn’t true either as brain cells never actually get replaced.
6. Salt over the left shoulder – “The devil is believed to detest salt. If a superstitious person spills salt, they must immediately toss a pinch over their left shoulder, because the devil is most likely to attack from the rear, and left (or sinister) side. The presence of the salt will immediately scare off the Devil before he can cause any trouble”.

One of the most common (and arguably “acceptable” places where superstitions exist is in sports. Spitting in your glove in baseball, growing a playoff beard in hockey, many athletes do these things and for the most part, society does not question them. In fact, many sports fans will even scold you for “jinxing” it if you say or do anything that might counteract such superstitions actions. I am a hockey fan, and while I find playoff beards amusing, I have no illusion that they make any difference. I see it as more of a light-hearted tradition and team bonding.

Are there any healthy superstitions?

Technically, superstitions are an evolutionary defense mechanism. They helped us survive in the early days of humankind. We heard rustling in the grass or trees and learned that it sometimes meant a lion or a bear was coming for us, so we would scram when we heard rustling just to be safe. That makes sense. But in modern times, a lot of defense mechanisms actually aren’t necessary, but not everyone stops to re-assess the things they do and determine if they should keep doing them. It got the intended result once, so it works every time, right?

They are “irrational” when they get to the point that your adherence to them is negatively affecting your ability to lead a normal life, similar to how OCDs can range from minor to extreme. Compulsively washing your hands every time you go to the washroom is healthy, but compulsively washing your hands every 30 seconds for no reason is not. However, WebMD says:

While some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious behaviour (and the two aren’t mutually exclusive), most of the evidence would indicate there is no connection between the two.

When I asked the group “do you think there are any healthy, or not overly unhealthy superstitions?”, that led someone to ask “well, does anyone here want to admit to having superstitions?”. One person brought up something that was more of an OCD issue. I was definitely more superstitious growing up since I was raised loosely catholic and I think a lot of basically “ghost stories” come with that. I was afraid of monsters under my bed and in my closet, I would avoid cracks on the sidewalk.. but eventually after taking a critical look at many of these behaviours I decided it was pointless and a waste of my time to keep doing them. My mother and sister are both afraid of spiders, significantly so. I learned that behaviour, but I have mostly gotten over it. I still don’t especially like spiders, but unless it’s a species that I know is actually dangerous (like a black widow spider), I basically just ignore it.

But it’s true, the idea that even a group of self-described skeptical, rational, freethinking people, could still have irrational thoughts and behaviours. No one is immune, which is again part of why I enjoy researching and posting things on this site, it’s a journal of my ongoing learning process. The point I emphasized is that I think it often comes down to the simple fact that we do something and we get a positive result, and so we keep doing it the same way, feeling fairly safe that we’ll get the same desired result again. Sometimes (often?) there is truly no causal link between that action and the result we got.

So we just need to regularly check in with ourselves and assess if the habits we have formed are beneficial or not. We also tend to accept a lot of the “wisdom” passed down from our parents, teachers, friends and other trusted figures, without assessing it with a more critical mind. This tends to improve as we get older, we may continue to uphold traditions even though they are purely symbolic. Personally, if I had kids, I wouldn’t teach them about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. While those might seem harmless, I don’t like the idea of knowingly teaching kids untruths and unnecessary folklore or ghost stories. Teach them to have a “bullshit detector” from an early age and you’ll be doing them a favour in life. There are lots of other fun, and true things you can teach them instead.

The reason I asked if there were any healthy superstitions is because things like spitting in your glove or growing a beard aren’t necessarily unhealthy, they aren’t really hurting anything (as long as you’re realistic). The point at which they would become unhealthy is if your team lost and you convinced yourself “I just didn’t spit in my glove enough“, and start compulsively spitting in your glove all the time. That’s not rational, healthy behaviour.

We decided as a group that ultimately it was a good goal to gently nudge society away from even these relatively harmless superstitious behaviours (we can treat phobias, so we can treat superstitions as well), in the short term we should focus on bigger fish, such as more highly irrational beliefs that actually do harm or endanger a person or those around them.

My research did indicate that people who believe in luck and hold “good luck charms” (of any type), tend to perform better, but it is usually a result of an added false confidence, they believe they will do better because of the charm, but if they didn’t have it, they would be less confident than average. So essentially, the charm is causing a placebo effect.

Best ways to combat Superstitions?

From WikiHow:

1. Think rationally about the superstitions you believe in – is there any real reason that you should be afraid or that something would be unlucky?
2. Consider which superstitions cause regular inconvenience to you – do you constantly bump into people because you’re always watching your feet to avoid stepping on cracks?
3. Find ways to prove to yourself that these superstitions have no basis in reality – leave a lucky charm at home and see how your day goes.
4. When making decisions, rely on common sense and a sound pattern of reasoning as opposed to weird feelings and supposed supernatural signs
5. Realize that you have the power to make your own “luck” – you can’t control everything that happens, but you can control how you react to any given thing

Additionally, from

  • Make a list of your superstitious beliefs and rank them.
  • Observe your emotional reactions when thinking about each one, what emotion does it excite? (sad, angry, anxious, scared?)
  • Keep your anxiety at bay and be realistic
  • Feel free to maintain practices and beliefs that are culturally significant to you, however remember that they carry only symbolic meaning instead of literal meaning

So, hopefully you learned something here, and maybe are re-assessing some behaviours or thoughts you have about different things.

And to close with a joke, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” 😉


Care to share your thoughts?