A week of Halloween myths – Day 4

This week I’m doing a special 5-part series related to spooky Halloween-related myths.

Today’s myth: Superstitions. There are objects, numbers, events, and sayings that bring “good luck” or “bad luck”. There will be actual imminent retribution for failing to act on compulsions following a specific “unlucky” antecedent.

Lucky
– The number 7.
– Throwing salt over shoulder.
– Rabbit’s feet.
– Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

Unlucky
– The number 13.
– Black cats crossing one’s path.
– Walking under a ladder.
– Breaking a mirror.

Above are some examples of superstitions in our European-descent society. There are many examples of superstitious beliefs. Some are shared among cultures and some are unique to a specific culture.

Essentially, all superstitions are fabricated OCD behaviours. Folklore and societal convention dictates that after event X happens, Y consequence will occur unless one performs Z behaviour. Furthermore, A object will protect against B if used according to C traditions. So event X happens or B object/person forebodes and we’ve been raised with the neurosis of compulsively performing an action or carrying around random objects “just in case”. Knock on wood.

I think the most damning evidence against superstitions is the simple fact that not all cultures share the same ones. Are some cultures luckier than others because they have the correct neuroses? Unlikely.

Superstition is based in ignorance (bias, misunderstanding, pattern seeking, etc), magical thinking (I can influence an event with some outside action or object), cause/correlation confusion (the Pats won the Superbowl all the years before I bought my jersey, now they suck and Brady is hurt — clearly my Bruschi jersey is unlucky), and fear of the unknown (I’d better do this because I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t, so I’m just covering my bases).

Well I’ve got some bad news. Sometimes bad shit happens to people at random. Sometimes the weather is bad and it’s mostly due to the Earth’s temperature and water cycle and not at all due to lack of sacrifices and prayers. We can’t control any of it. We might convince ourselves that we can though if we forget about confirmation bias and correlational rules. So again we have a problem of cognition — people just aren’t that good at ignoring random happenstance. They will try to repeat events by repeating perceived related actions, or will try to not repeat events by not performing other perceived related actions. And vice versa.

And we have a problem of mechanism. How are these rituals affecting daily events (other than to waste people’s time)? How does me carrying a rabbit’s foot on a key chain affect all the people and events around me to the extent that nothing “bad” will happen? How does the luck object know what are the good events and what are the bad events? Does luck always work the same way? If so, why are there so many ways to get it? Why is luck so inconsistent — i.e., why can I be somewhat “lucky” during a time in which I should still be feeling the consequences of an action that caused me “bad luck”?

That all being said, if someone believes really hard with all their might that because they broke that mirror they will have 7 years of bad luck, they just might — in a sense. However this would be an internal mechanism related to the person’s anxiety and behaviour and not because of an outward “luck” mechanism. Essentially, the person may become much more likely to attribute ordinary negative events (that might have happened anyway) to the problem with luck. They may become much less likely to perceive positive events and negative events together as the general flow of life.

The rational person, however, buys a new mirror and moves on with his/her life without the fear of “bad luck”. They perceive negative and positive events as caused by the randomness of life. They “prevent” bad luck by not pretending there is any such thing as luck at all. They take responsibility for actions, learn from mistakes, and feel good about accomplishments.

That seems like a much more fulfilling way to live life than to be a scared sheep at the mercy of fate and luck.

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