Op-ed: The irrationality behind clinging to superstition

I stood calmly on the moving escalator at the Peoria Civic Center in Illinois. I was a senior in high school competing at the Speech State Championship, where I just finished my second round of competitive speaking. There I replayed my performance—notably not my best—in my head, along with the subtle reactions I observed on the judges’ faces. It was a futile act and simply another mechanism to stress myself out.

Halfway down the escalator, I ranked myself against my competitors and quickly reasoned that I should still make the final round, since I presumably did far better in my first round. The thought was swift and superficially inconsequential, but I had unwittingly jinxed myself. Suddenly I felt the impulse to knock on wood, a practice rooted in age-old mythology, so I could reverse my premature assumption. To my misfortune, there wasn’t any wood around.

I knocked on doors, tables, and even floors so often at speech competitions that it became a running joke on my team. Some of my teammates even adopted the habit.

I’m sadly bound to my myriad of superstitions. Not only do I knock on wood, but I refrain from doing any laundry on Thursdays, and walking over people when they’re laying down—from my mother’s advice. Less strictly, I appreciate lucky pennies and the astrological sun signs’ influence over people’s lives. And I stay away from experiences that imitate tales surrounding ladders, mirrors, black cats, and unlucky numbers.

These quirky practices largely started as jokes in my life. Originally, I did not have to rely on them as consequential actions that would affect outcomes in reality, but eventually they evolved into irreversible habits that calmed my anxieties. And they even became normalized in my friends and family’s eyes. I noticed this in particular with my brother, who used to point fingers and ridicule my eccentricities. But now, he barely blinks an eye when I pound a fist on a wooden table.

As superstition continues to pervade my life and presumably the lives of others as well, I realize it’s time to step out of the habit. Too often I find myself crediting superstitions as the reason behind a missed opportunity or a particular result. Sometimes, these activities become cop-outs to forgive my unfounded confidence in myself, like at the speech championship, or an excuses for when things didn’t go my way.

I’m not alone in my fear that a greater influence could touch down on my life in odd ways if I don’t partake in a tradition like knocking on wood. The Los Angeles Times reported that about half of Americans hold superstitious beliefs. In the same article, Michael Shermer, the executive director of the Skeptics Society, explained that normal people are usually ones to believe superstitions, not fools or kooks as some might expect.

“Most believers in miracles, monsters, and mysteries are not hoaxers, flimflam artists, or lunatics. Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong in some way,” Shermer said.

To no surprise, we adopt these superstitions from our families and our cultures. Susan Bell, assistant director of communications at the University of Southern California, said in her essay that the close entanglement of culture and religion globally explains why the majority of superstitions find their origins in religious texts and practices. Triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13, originates in Biblical tradition, witchcraft, and the lunar calendar.

The cultural foundation of superstition further proves why we shouldn’t believe these signs and practices. Americans fear Friday the 13th, Cubans fear Tuesday the 13th, and in Thailand, all Fridays are observed as “days of happiness.” These endless incongruities in global superstitions make me repeatedly question my steadfast loyalty to my beliefs.

For me, superstitious beliefs dripped down in my family’s generational culture, and my trust in authority subconsciously pushed me to believe them. I scoffed at my mom for leaving the laundry untouched on Thursdays at home, and now I despise myself for thinking twice before reaching for the detergent each Thursday.

Millions of individuals could benefit from holding themselves more accountable for the occurrences in their lives. No longer should we default to our accepted views on superstitions—our choice to prioritize the workings of black magic, broken mirrors, and jinxes are innately childish and ignorant in their foundations.

The world is endlessly inexplicable. In reality, who am I to know what happens, why it happens, and at what time it happens? Superstitions, regardless of where we learn to believe them, provide a convenient crutch to lean on in times of uncertainty.

Most things that happen in my life are cause and effect—one or a few actions lead to certain results. And I’m almost sure knocking on wood isn’t going to change what happens. Maybe it’s time other believers lean into that conclusion, too.

 

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