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A superstition is any belief or practice considered by non-practitioners to be irrational or supernatural, attributed to fate or magic, perceived supernatural influence, or fear of that which is unknown. It is commonly applied to beliefs and practices surrounding luck, amulets, astrology, fortune telling, spirits, and certain paranormal entities, particularly the belief that future events can be foretold by specific (apparently) unrelated prior events.[1][2]

Also, the word superstition is often used to refer to a religion not practiced by the majority of a given society regardless of whether the prevailing religion contains alleged superstitions.[1]


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines superstition as "religious belief or practice considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural" and "a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief."[3] Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines superstition as, "the belief that particular events happen in a way that cannot be explained by reason or science; the belief that particular events bring good or bad luck."[4] According to Merriam Webster, a false conception about causation or belief or practice emanating from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance amounts to superstition.[5] Merriam Webster also defines, those notions which are maintained despite evidence to the contrary as superstitions,[5] Merriam Webster also says that abject attitudes of mind, resulting from superstition towards supernatural, nature or God are also called superstition.[5] Cambridge Dictionary denotes superstition as "belief that is connected with old ideas about magic etc., sans grounding in human reason or scientific knowledge;[6] the dictionary cites Cambridge English Corpus contextually the term superstition might define controversial beliefs, the practice of confessional opponents or the beliefs of the ignorant masses as superstitious.[6] The Cambridge Dictionary further cites American dictionary defining superstition as, a belief that explains the causes for events in ways that are connected to magic which are not based on reason or scientific thinking.[6]

Lysann Damisch (2010) research article defines superstition as "irrational beliefs that an object, action, or circumstance that is not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome."[7][8]

According to Dale Martin, superstitions may represent long standing popular beliefs and practices which presuppose an erroneous understanding about cause and effect, that have been rejected by modern science.[9] Dale says, in modern times, definition of 'superstition' is dependent on whatever is considered 'science' and hence 'superstition' is the 'other' to 'science' and that modern people accepting certain beliefs even may be aware that those are rejected or marginalized by scientific culture;[9] hence superstitions are often considered as out of place in modern times influenced by modern science and its notions of what is rational or irrational, surviving as remnants of older popular beliefs and practices.[9]

Consumer behavior analyst John C. Mowen et al. finds dictionary definitions inadequate and defines 'superstition' as a belief, or set of beliefs and/or practice which believe that specific actions can directly influence the avoidance of undesirable outcomes and/or influence the occurrence of desirable outcomes factually such beliefs are inconsistent with the scientific knowledge available within a culture, and the actions are not causally related to the outcomes.[10]


Dieter Harmening's book Superstitio categorizes superstitions in three categories of magic, divination and observances, he further divides observances category in 'signs' and 'time'.[2] Time sub category constitutes temporal prognostics like observances of various days related like dog days, Egyptian days, year prognosis and lunaries, where as signs category constitutes signs like particular animal behaviors, like the call of birds or neighing of horses or sighting of comets, or dreams.[2] According to László Sándor Chardonnens the signs subcategory usually needs an observer who might help in interpreting the signs and such observer does not need necessarily to be an active participant of the observation.[2] According to Chardonnens, category of Divination participant need to go beyond mere observation and need to be active participant in given action.[2] Examples of Divination superstitions are judicial astrology, necromancy, haruspex, lot-casting, geomancy, aeromancy and prophecy.[2] Chardonnens says superstions belonging to magic category are exceedingly hermetical and ritualistic and its examples are witchcraft, potions, incantations, amulets etc.[2] Chardonnens says Observation category needs an observer, divination category needs participant to tell what is to be observed, where as magic requires a participant who must follow a protocol to influence the future, and that these three types of superstition need increasing stages of participation and knowledge.[2]

Chardonnens defines "prognostication" as that component of superstition which, expects knowledge of the future on systematic application of given ritual and order,[2] and moves to classify saying, Prognostication appear to occupy a place somewhere between observation and divination, of which due to the primacy of temporal prognostics, the observation of times is represented most frequently.[2]

Chardonnens classifies prophecy under topic of divination; examples being the prophets of the Old Testament, biblical typological allegory, the fifteen signs before Judgement Day, and the many prophecies expressed by saints.; Chardonnens further points out that since many aspects of religious experience are tied up with prophecy, church condones the same.[2] Chardonnens says, one could differentiate between those kinds of prophecy which are (1) inspired by God or Satan and their minions; (2) “gecyndelic”; and (3) “wiglung” examples —lacking divine or infernal inspiration and not “gecyndelic” either. But practically, however, most, if not all, words relating to prophecy ought to be interpreted as inspired.[2]

Criticism of definitions

Identifying something as superstition is generally pejorative. Items referred to as such in common parlance are commonly referred to as folk belief in folkloristics.[11]

According to László Sándor Chardonnens, OED definitions pass value judgement and attribution to "fear and ignorance", do not do enough justice to elaborate systems of superstitions.[2] Chardonnens says the religious element in OED denotations are not understood as system of observance and testifies to a belief in higher power on part of the compiler of the dictionary.[2]

Subjective perceptions

Webster's The Encyclopedia of Superstitions points out that, many superstitions are related with religion, people have been carrying individual subjective perceptions vis a vis superstitions against one another, people of one belief are likely to call people of another belief superstitious; Constantine regarded paganism as a superstition; Tacitus on other hand regarded Christianity as pernicious superstition; Saul of Tarsus and Martin Luther perceived any thing that was not centered on Christ to be superstitious.[12] According to Dale, difference of opinion on what constitutes 'superstition' get apparent when one moves form one culture to another culture.[9]


While the formation of the Latin word is clear, from the verb super-stare, "to stand over, stand upon; survive", its original intended sense is less clear. It can be interpreted as "‘standing over a thing in amazement or awe",[13] but other possibilities have been suggested, e.g. the sense of excess, i.e. over scrupulousness or over-ceremoniousness in the performing of religious rites, or else the survival of old, irrational religious habits.[14][15]

The earliest known use as a noun is found in Plautus, Ennius and later by Pliny, with the meaning of art of divination.[16] From its use in the Classical Latin of Livy and Ovid, it is used in the pejorative sense that it holds today, of an excessive fear of the gods or unreasonable religious belief; as opposed to religio, the proper, reasonable awe of the gods. Cicero derived the term from superstitiosi, lit. those who are "left over", i.e. "survivors", "descendants", connecting it with excessive anxiety of parents in hoping that their children would survive them to perform their necessary funerary rites.[17]

According to Michael David Bailey, it was with Pliny's usage word Magic came close to superstition; and charge of being superstitious were first leveled by Roman authorities on its Christian subjects, in turn early Christian writers pronounced all Roman and Pagan cults to be superstitious worshiping false Gods, fallen angels and demons and it is with Christian usage almost all forms of magic started being described as forms of superstition.[18]

Superstition and religion

See also: Superstitions in Muslim societies, Evolutionary origin of religions, and Evolutionary psychology of religion

Greek and Roman polytheists, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms, scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. Such fear of the gods was what the Romans meant by "superstition" (Veyne 1987, p. 211).

Diderot's Encyclopédie defines superstition as "any excess of religion in general", and links it specifically with paganism.[19]

In his Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Martin Luther (who called the papacy "that fountain and source of all superstitions") accuses the popes of superstition:

For there was scarce another of the celebrated bishoprics that had so few learned pontiffs; only in violence, intrigue, and superstition has it hitherto surpassed the rest. For the men who occupied the Roman See a thousand years ago differ so vastly from those who have since come into power, that one is compelled to refuse the name of Roman pontiff either to the former or to the latter.[20]

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church considers superstition sinful in the sense that it denotes "a perverse excess of religion", as a demonstrated lack of trust in divine providence (¶ 2110), and a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism is a defense against the accusation that Catholic doctrine is superstitious:

Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition. Cf. Matthew 23:16–22 (¶ 2111)

Examples of superstitions and taboos from a November 1941 issue of Weird Tales.
Examples of superstitions and taboos from a November 1941 issue of Weird Tales.

Superstition and psychology

Main articles: Magical thinking, Placebo, and Effective theory


Behaviorism perspective

In 1948, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other behaviours. Because these behaviors were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons' actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behavior in humans.[21]

Skinner's theory regarding superstition being the nature of the pigeons' behaviour has been challenged by other psychologists such as Staddon and Simmelhag, who theorised an alternative explanation for the pigeons' behaviour.[22]

Despite challenges to Skinner's interpretation of the root of his pigeons' superstitious behaviour, his conception of the reinforcement schedule has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. Originally, in Skinner's animal research, "some pigeons responded up to 10,000 times without reinforcement when they had originally been conditioned on an intermittent reinforcement basis."[23] Compared to the other reinforcement schedules (e.g., fixed ratio, fixed interval), these behaviours were also the most resistant to extinction.[23] This is called the partial reinforcement effect, and this has been used to explain superstitious behaviour in humans. To be more precise, this effect means that, whenever an individual performs an action expecting a reinforcement, and none seems forthcoming, it actually creates a sense of persistence within the individual.[24]

Evolutionary/cognitive perspective

From a simpler perspective, natural selection will tend to reinforce a tendency to generate weak associations or heuristics that are overgeneralized. If there is a strong survival advantage to making correct associations, then this will outweigh the negatives of making many incorrect, "superstitious" associations.[25] It has also been argued that there may be connections between OCD and superstition.[26]

A recent theory by Jane Risen proposes that superstitions are intuitions that people acknowledge to be wrong, but acquiesce to rather than correct when they arise as the intuitive assessment of a situation. Her theory draws on dual-process models of reasoning. In this view, superstitions are the output of "System 1" reasoning that are not corrected even when caught by "System 2".[27]


People seem to believe that superstitions influence events by changing the likelihood of currently possible outcomes rather than by creating new possible outcomes. In sporting events, for example, a lucky ritual or object is thought to increase the chance that an athlete will perform at the peak of their ability, rather than increasing their overall ability at that sport.[28]

Psychologist Stuart Vyse has pointed out that until about 2010, "[m]ost researchers assumed superstitions were irrational and focused their attentions on discovering why people were superstitious." Vyse went on to describe studies that looked at the relationship between performance and superstitious rituals. Preliminary work has indicated that such rituals can reduce stress and thereby improve performance, but, Vyse has said, "...not because they are superstitious but because they are rituals.... So there is no real magic, but there is a bit of calming magic in performing a ritualistic sequence before attempting a high-pressure activity.... Any old ritual will do."[29][30]


People tend to attribute events to supernatural causes (in psychological jargon, "external causes") most often under two circumstances.

  1. People are more likely to attribute an event to a superstitious cause if it is unlikely than if it is likely. In other words, the more surprising the event, the more likely it is to evoke a supernatural explanation. This is believed to stem from an effectance motivation - a basic desire to exert control over one's environment. When no natural cause can explain a situation, attributing an event to a superstitious cause may give people some sense of control and ability to predict what will happen in their environment.[31]
  2. People are more likely to attribute an event to a superstitious cause if it is negative than positive. This is called negative agency bias.[32] Boston Red Sox fans, for instance, attributed the failure of their team to win the world series for 86 years to the curse of the bambino: a curse placed on the team for trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees so that the team owner could fund a Broadway musical. When the Red Sox finally won the world series in 2004, however, the team's success was attributed to the team's skill and the rebuilding effort of the new owner and general manager. More commonly, people are more likely to perceive their computer to act according to its own intentions when it malfunctions than functions properly.[31]

Consumer behavior

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According to consumer behavior analytics of John C. Mowen et al., superstitions are employed as a heuristic tool hence those influence a variety of consumer behaviors.[33][10] John C. Mowen et al. says, after taking into account for a set of antecedents, trait superstitions are predictive of a wide variety of consumer beliefs, like beliefs in astrology or in common negative superstitions (e.g., fear of black cats). Additionally, a general proneness to be superstitious leads to enduring temperament to gamble, participation in promotional games, investments in stocks, forwarding of superstitious e‐mails, keeping good‐luck charms, and exhibit sport fanship etc.[33][10]

Superstition and politics

Ancient Greek historian Polybius in his Histories uses the word superstition explaining that in ancient Rome that belief maintained the cohesion of the empire, operating as an instrumentum regni.[34]

Opposition to superstition

In the classical era, the existence of gods was actively debated both among philosophers and theologians, and opposition to superstition arose consequently. The poem De rerum natura, written by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius further developed the opposition to superstition. Cicero's work De natura deorum also had a great influence on the development of the modern concept of superstition as well as the word itself. Where Cicero distinguished superstitio and religio, Lucretius used only the word religio. Cicero, for whom superstitio meant “excessive fear of the gods” wrote that “superstitio, non religio, tollenda est ”, which means that only superstition, and not religion, should be abolished. The Roman Empire also made laws condemning those who excited excessive religious fear in others.[35]

During the Middle Ages, the idea of God's influence on the world's events went mostly undisputed. Trials by ordeal were quite frequent, even though Frederick II (1194 – 1250 AD) was the first king who explicitly outlawed trials by ordeal as they were considered “irrational”.[36]

The rediscovery of lost classical works (The Renaissance) and scientific advancement led to a steadily increasing disbelief in superstition. A new, more rationalistic lens was beginning to see use in exegesis. Opposition to superstition was central to the Age of Enlightenment. The first philosopher who dared to criticize superstition publicly and in a written form was Baruch Spinoza, who was a key figure in the Age of Enlightenment.[37]

Regional and national superstitions

Most superstitions arose over the course of centuries and are rooted in regional and historical circumstances, such as religious beliefs or the natural environment. For instance, geckos are believed to be of medicinal value in many Asian countries, including China.[38]

In China, Feng shui is a belief system that is said to have a negative effect on different places, e.g. that a room in the northwest corner of a house is "very bad".[39] Similarly, the number 8 is a "lucky number" in China, so that it is more common than any other number in the Chinese housing market.[39]

See also


  1. ^ a b Vyse, Stuart A. (2000). Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 19–22. ISBN 978-0-1951-3634-0.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Chardonnens, L. S. (2007-01-01). Chapter Four. Superstition and prognostication. Brill. ISBN 978-90-474-2042-2.
  3. ^ "superstition, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press. September 2021. Retrieved 28 November 2021.((cite web)): CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. ^ "superstition noun - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2021-11-28.
  5. ^ a b c "Definition of SUPERSTITION". Retrieved 2020-12-30.
  6. ^ a b c "SUPERSTITION | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 2020-12-30.
  7. ^ Damisch, Lysann; Stoberock, Barbara; Mussweiler, Thomas (2010-07-01). "Keep Your Fingers Crossed!: How Superstition Improves Performance". Psychological Science. 21 (7): 1014–1020. doi:10.1177/0956797610372631. ISSN 0956-7976. PMID 20511389. S2CID 8862493.
  8. ^ Tosyali, Furkan; Aktas, Busra (2021-12-01). "Does training analytical thinking decrease superstitious beliefs? Relationship between analytical thinking, intrinsic religiosity, and superstitious beliefs". Personality and Individual Differences. 183: 111122. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2021.111122. ISSN 0191-8869.
  9. ^ a b c d Martin, Dale B. (2009-06-30). Inventing Superstition. Harvard University Press. pp. 10 to 20. ISBN 978-0-674-04069-4.
  10. ^ a b c Carlson, Brad D.; Mowen, John C.; Fang, Xiang (2009). "Trait superstition and consumer behavior: Re-conceptualization, measurement, and initial investigations". Psychology & Marketing. 26 (8): 691 of 689–713. doi:10.1002/mar.20295. ISSN 1520-6793.
  11. ^ For discussion, see for example Georges, Robert A. & Jones, Michael Owen. 1995. Folkloristics: An Introduction, p. 122. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253329345.
  12. ^ Webster, Richard (8 September 2012). The Encyclopedia of Superstitions. Llewellyn Worldwide. pp. xi. ISBN 978-0-7387-2561-1.
  13. ^ "orig. a standing still over or by a thing; hence, amazement, wonder, dread, esp. of the divine or supernatural." Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary.
  14. ^ Oxford Latin Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1982.
  15. ^ Turcan, Robert (1996). The Cults of the Roman Empire. Nevill, Antonia (trans.). Oxford, England: Blackwell. pp. 10–12. ISBN 978-0-631-20047-5.. Oxford English Dictionary (Second ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989. The etymological meaning of L. superstitio is perhaps ‘standing over a thing in amazement or awe.’ Other interpretations of the literal meaning have been proposed, e.g., ‘excess in devotion, over-scrupulousness or over-ceremoniousness in religion’ and ‘the survival of old religious habits in the midst of a new order of things’; but such ideas are foreign to ancient Roman thought.
  16. ^ Manuela Simeoni (2011-09-04). "Uso della parola superstitio contro i pagani" (in Italian).
  17. ^ Cicero, De Natura Deorum II, 28 (32), quoted in Wagenvoort, Hendrik (1980). Pietas: selected studies in Roman religion. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. p. 236. ISBN 978-90-04-06195-8.
  18. ^ Bailey, Michael David, 1971- (2007). Magic and superstition in Europe : a concise history from antiquity to the present. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pub. ISBN 978-0-7425-3386-8. OCLC 70267160.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  19. ^ Louis, Chevalier de Jaucourt (Biography) (2010-10-10). "Superstition". Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert - Collaborative Translation Project. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  20. ^ Luther, Martin (1915). "The Babylonian Captivity § The Sacrament of Extreme Unction". In Jacobs, Henry Eyster; Spaeth, Adolph (eds.). Works of Martin Luther: With Instructions and Notes. Vol. 2. Translated by Steinhaeuser, Albert T. W. Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company. p. 291. LCCN 15007839. OCLC 300541097. For there was scarce another of the celebrated bishoprics that had so few learned pontiffs; only in violence, intrigue, and superstition has it hitherto surpassed the rest. For the men who occupied the Roman See a thousand years ago differ so vastly from those who have since come into power, that one is compelled to refuse the name of Roman pontiff either to the former or to the latter.
  21. ^ Skinner, B. F. (1948). "'Superstition' in the Pigeon". Journal of Experimental Psychology. 38 (2): 168–172. doi:10.1037/h0055873. PMID 18913665.
  22. ^ Staddon, J. E. & Simmelhag, V. L. (1971). "The 'supersitition' experiment: A reexamination of its implications for the principles of adaptive behaviour". Psychological Review. 78 (1): 3–43. doi:10.1037/h0030305.
  23. ^ a b Schultz & Schultz (2004, 238).[full citation needed]
  24. ^ Carver, Charles S. & Scheier, Michael (2004). Perspectives on personality. Allyn and Bacon. p. 332. ISBN 978-0-205-37576-9.
  25. ^ Foster, Kevin R.; Kokko, Hanna (2009). "The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 276 (1654): 31–7. doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.0981. PMC 2615824. PMID 18782752.
  26. ^ de Silva, Padmal and Rachman, Stanley (2004) Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, Oxford University Press, p. 34, ISBN 0198520824.
  27. ^ Risen, Jane L. (2016). "Believing what we do not believe: Acquiescence to superstitious beliefs and other powerful intuitions". Psychological Review. 123 (2): 182–207. doi:10.1037/rev0000017. PMID 26479707.
  28. ^ Hamerman, Eric J.; Morewedge, Carey K. (2015-03-01). "Reliance on Luck Identifying Which Achievement Goals Elicit Superstitious Behavior". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 41 (3): 323–335. doi:10.1177/0146167214565055. ISSN 0146-1672. PMID 25617118. S2CID 1160061.
  29. ^ Vyse, Stuart (2018). "Do Superstitious Rituals Work?". Skeptical Inquirer. 42 (2): 32–34. Archived from the original on 3 June 2018. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
  30. ^ Vyse, Stuart (April 2020). "Obsessions and compulsions: Do superstitious rituals help cope with anxiety?". Skeptical Inquirer. 44 (2): 52.
  31. ^ a b Waytz, Adam; Morewedge, Carey K.; Epley, Nicholas; Monteleone, George; Gao, Jia-Hong; Cacioppo, John T. (2010). "Making sense by making sentient: Effectance motivation increases anthropomorphism". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 99 (3): 410–435. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/a0020240. PMID 20649365.
  32. ^ Morewedge, Carey K. (2009). "Negativity bias in attribution of external agency". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 138 (4): 535–545. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/a0016796. PMID 19883135.
  33. ^ a b Carlson, Brad D.; Mowen, John C.; Fang, Xiang (2009). "Trait superstition and consumer behavior: Re-conceptualization, measurement, and initial investigations". Psychology & Marketing. 26 (8): 689–713. doi:10.1002/mar.20295. ISSN 1520-6793.
  34. ^ Guy, Josephine M. (2007) The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Oxford University Press, Volume IV, p. 337, ISBN 0191568449.
  35. ^ "Uso della parola superstitio contro i pagani".
  36. ^ "Ma l'imperatore svevo fu conservatore o innovatore?". Archived from the original on 2015-04-29.
  37. ^ Wilson, Helen Judy; Reill, Peter Hanns (2004). Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. New York: Facts on File. p. 577. ISBN 978-0-8160-5335-3. . . . equating all Christian beliefs except those accessible to unaided reason with superstition . . .
  38. ^ Wagner, P.; Dittmann, A. (2014). "Medicinal use of Gekko gecko (Squamata: Gekkonidae) has an impact on agamid lizards". Salamandra. 50: 185–186.
  39. ^ a b Nicaise, Alexander (2020-01-16). "Superstition and the Chinese Real Estate Market | Skeptical Inquirer". Retrieved 2020-01-29.
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