Half-Belief in Superstitions |

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A recent study provides important new insights into the psychology of superstition. Considerable work over the years has examined the causes and characteristics of superstitious beliefs (e.g., Vyse 2013). However, this new research by Avner Caspi and colleagues, which appeared in the Journal of Individual Differences, adds a new twist to what we already know while also raising new questions (Caspi et al., 2023).

It does so in two ways. First, it suggests that superstition may be much more common than previously thought. It also explores the strange, but important, phenomenon of half-belief, where people’s endorsement of superstitions does not match the extent to which they actually engage in superstitious behaviors.

Superstitious Thinking vs. Superstitious Behavior

Superstition is generally illogical. It runs counter to naturalistic reasoning and a scientifically grounded understanding of the world (Lindeman and Svedholm, 2012). For example, there is no rational reason to explain why breaking a mirror would lead to seven years of bad luck. In fact, even the concept of “bad luck” is itself vague and not empirically tenable. Similarly, there is no plausible reason for concern when stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. Your mother’s back will likely be just fine.

Nonetheless, superstitions are very common, and many researchers have explored what causes people to believe in them. The current study contributes to this vein of inquiry but also makes an important distinction between superstitious belief and superstitious behavior. This is important, because these two dimensions of superstition may not always be in alignment for people.

If someone believes the number 13 is unlucky, for example, it makes sense that they would avoid the number whenever possible. Conversely, anyone who does not believe in the baleful power of that integer should display no such aversion to it. Both individuals would qualify as what the authors call “calibrated believers” since their level of belief (or disbelief) matches their behaviors.

Yet, in real life, people are not necessarily so consistent. The authors suggest that some people may be “half-believers,” who don’t really believe in superstitions but participate in them anyway. On the other hand, they might believe in superstitions but not bother to act on them for some reason. These individuals are called “passive believers.”

Much prior research does not make this distinction between belief and action when it comes to superstition. Of course, this means that it cannot identify mismatches between them either. Failing to do so could lead to errors in our understanding of the frequency and causes of superstition.

A New Window on Old Beliefs

To investigate these beliefs and behaviors, as well as mismatches between them, the authors administered an online survey. Through this instrument, they collected data from 1,014 Israeli participants across two separate samples. The survey included a range of items including questions asking about participant demographics, superstitious beliefs and practices, and psychological traits likely to be associated with these. The results, some of which are considered here, are based on the statistical analysis of these original data.

One important takeaway from the paper is that superstition might be much more common than previously thought. Various studies over the years have indicated relatively high levels of superstition among general populations. For instance, the authors note that one Gallup poll found that about 25 percent of Americans identified as superstitious (Daprarti et al., 2019) while another report indicated that figure is closer to 40 percent among Europeans (Philips, 2010).

These frequencies are rather large as it is, but they pale in comparison to the rate identified by Caspi and colleagues in the current study. Here, fully 97 percent of the sample reported that they engaged in superstition of some type or another. Put differently, this would mean that nearly everyone is at least a little superstitious. This disparity could reflect differences in the sample itself compared to these earlier studies. However, it likely reflects the fact that this research asked about both superstitious beliefs and practices rather than one or the other or lumping both together into a single measure.

The study reveals interesting findings regarding patterns in superstition, too. Women were more likely than men to both believe and practice superstitions. Religious participants were also more likely to maintain both superstitious beliefs and behaviors than nonreligious participants. A similar pattern emerged for people who reported higher levels of anxiety, but only in regard to negative superstitions. In other words, anxiety seems to make people more wary of superstitions that threaten harm or bad luck (e.g., walking under ladders) but no more convinced by superstitions that promise benefits (e.g., four-leaf clovers).

Younger participants were also more susceptible to both superstitious beliefs and behaviors, but only in regard to positive ones. No such difference was found between them and older individuals for negative superstitions. Participants who reported higher levels of intolerance for uncertainty in life participated in more superstitious behaviors, but only regarding negative superstitions. Interestingly, despite engaging in more superstitious behaviors of this sort, they did actually not show any higher level of belief in these.

The study also identified patterns in which participants are more likely to report inconsistencies between their superstitious beliefs and behaviors. This inconsistency was more likely among nonreligious people than religious ones. Participants who reported being more intolerant of uncertainty in their lives were also more likely to display this inconsistency, but only when it came to negative superstitions.

Questions Remain

Like all research, this study has some characteristics that warrant caution regarding its findings. For example, its sample is limited to participants from Israel, so it is possible that different patterns might exist in other socio-cultural contexts. Also, given that it is cross-sectional in design, we should be cautious when inferring causal relationships in the correlations it identified. However, its findings make important contributions to the psychology of superstition and point to many possibilities for future research in this and related areas.

The study also raises many interesting questions, not the least of which is why there is so often a mismatch between superstitious beliefs and practices. The authors found that about half of their respondents practiced superstitions more than they actually believed them. Another roughly 35 percent of the sample believed more than they actually practiced superstitions. Only the remaining 15 percent demonstrated close consistency between their beliefs and their behaviors. If this is reflective at all of a broader pattern around the world, it suggests that inconsistency is actually the norm.

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