Have you ever wondered why seemingly off-the-wall superstitions hang around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years? Or where new superstitions come from? Read on for my mostly unscientific analysis.
My sweet Italian mother-in-law had a superstition in her pocket ready to pull out for any occasion. Some of her beliefs are shared widely in the US: If you break a mirror, you’ll have seven years’ bad luck. Walking under a ladder is unlucky. If a black cat crosses your path, something bad will happen to you.
She also held many more obscure beliefs: A bargain is guaranteed to be kept if the people involved spit in their hands and shake on it. Eating raw potato or raw hotdogs will give you worms. If your right palm itches, you’ll receive money. If your left palm itches, you’ll give away money. If a crow lands on your roof, sickness or disaster will strike you or those with whom you live. If you drop a knife, someone close to you will die.
A number of these beliefs make a certain kind of sense. Eating raw pork or potatoes can make you sick—just not from worms. Crows often feast on dead things (think plagues) and follow armies into battle. Knives are weapons; being careless with weapons kills people—you get the idea. This type of superstition may have along lifespan because there is some truth (at least historically) in them and they have very strong emotional associations, like illness, war and death.
Some superstitions are rhymes and rituals. Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back. If you’re holding hands with a friend and you let go to go around an obstacle on opposite sides, one of you says bread and butter, then the other replies cheese and crackers to avoid bad luck. Children love rhymes and call-and-response rituals, so they learn them from older kids and then teach them to younger kids, perpetuating the superstition.
Many superstitions are specific to people from a certain cultural tradition. Years ago I worked with a Mexican-American woman who was a naturalized US citizen. She told me that some mothers in Mexico deliberately infect their small children with head lice to protect them from ghosts.
Seeming superstitions exist that cross so many cultures in one form or another that I believe there may in fact be truth to them. For example, people in many cultures believe in the power of a curse or the Evil Eye. Interestingly, modern scientific research gives credence to the power of focused intention to affect outcomes. (Quantum physics, anyone?) Many cultures believe certain symbols or objects offer protection. An article in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind reports that recent research indicates metaphors have powerful subconscious effects on behavior.
New superstitions show up in cultures over time. Some may be an attempt to find logic when we are faced with things we can’t explain. When I worked as a technical writer for a large corporation, I became friends with a smart guy named Brian, our department’s computer and internet troubleshooter. At one point, all the tech writers were experiencing a particularly nebulous and intractable problem: our saved work disappeared from the server on a regular basis.
I jokingly said to Brian, “Maybe we’re suffering from Bad Computer Magic.”
He laughed. “Actually, we have a name for what causes situations like this in the Information Technology Department. We call it PFM—Pure Fx%!-ing Magic.”
What do you think? Are we simply dealing with systems too complex for our minds to understand? Or might there be a ghost in the machine?