Superstitions linked to feelings of helplessness, personality traits

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According to a recent undergraduate research study at K-State, individuals who routinely engage in superstitious behaviors are likely to have trouble making decisions and believe in fate and chance. In addition, they do not believe in the ability to control their own life, and this can often cause unhappiness.

Of course, hearing that superstitions can cause unhappiness probably inspires individuals to knock on wood or reach for a lucky rabbit’s foot — just in case.

Scott Fluke, lead researcher and K-State alumnus in psychology, has always been interested in superstition, and after receiving a $500 undergraduate research fellowship last year, he decided to further explore the subject.

“It was initially suggested to me by a friend of mine in a research methods class at K-State, and I looked into past research and found that there isn’t much research on it,” he said.

Fluke asked 200 volunteers to complete surveys that would measure their belief in good and bad luck, fate and chance. Those surveys were matched with personality tests, which allowed Fluke to identify connections between belief in superstition and certain personality traits.

“We were trying to get at if people were superstitious, not if they had particular superstitious beliefs,” Fluke said. “We tried to understand what characteristics a superstitious person might have. People who are pessimistic tend to be superstitious. People who are not decisive tend to be superstitious. They use superstitions to gain a degree of control over their lives because they think that they have no control.”

The study, completed with help from Donald Saucier, associate professor of psychology, and Russell Webster, graduate student in psychology, not only analyzed what personality traits are associated with superstitious behaviors, but also what situations cause a person to engage in those behaviors.

“People are more prone to behaving superstitiously when they are in situations of uncertainty,” Fluke said. “For example, people will wear a ‘lucky jersey’ for a football game that is taking place 500 miles away.”

The superstitions, Webster said, are a source of comfort.

“They decrease feelings of helplessness,” Webster said. “One of the most general laws of human beings is that people like to be in control and they like prediction. Superstitions can help increase that feeling of control.”

Wearing a certain jersey to an athletic event or a lucky tie to a job interview might seem harmless, but in certain contexts, the behavior could be unhealthy.

“When a superstition replaces an actual proactive behavior that could control the outcome, it could become an issue,” Saucier said. “Wearing a lucky shirt instead of studying for an exam will not be as beneficial as spending a couple of hours with notes. When it replaces helpful behaviors, it can become a problem.”

Despite the comfort superstitions may provide, Fluke found individuals do not always adhere to them. When faced with a situation that has no room for uncertainty, people no longer need the psychological safety net of superstitions.

“When situations become hopeless, we no longer feel that we are able to control the situation and we stop trying,” Fluke said. “For example, when K-State’s basketball team is still in the game against KU, we are prone to try to influence the outcome with our superstitions. But, if late in the fourth quarter, we are down by 20 points, we lose hope in a good outcome; we feel that we can no longer influence the outcome, and thus we begin to behave less superstitiously.”

Even if superstitions do not affect real change, no one on the research team would advise students to give up the routines that provide comfort during times of uncertainty.

“As long as people are being proactive in the situation, they can use superstitions to make themselves feel good,” Saucier said. “They are fine as long as they aren’t the only things you use.”

Because there is little research currently available on superstition, Webster believes it may be necessary to take a deeper look into the behavior.

“I think superstition is pervasive, and research has shown that people’s superstitions affect all sorts of behaviors and relationships, from what you do to prepare for an exam to what you buy in a store,” Webster said. “There is a lot more to explore.”

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