Admit it. Even though you don’t really believe this Friday the 13th will be an unlucky day, you will take note of it. Perhaps you won’t deliberately walk under a ladder or let a black cat cross your path. You may even knock on wood if someone says something that sounds like it’s tempting good fortune. And you wouldn’t turn down an offer of a four-leafed clover. The truth is, whether we believe in them or not, superstitions are part of our popular culture and most everyone follows them.
My maternal grandmother taught me numerous superstitions she deeply believed in that, in retrospect, were clustered in three categories: death, arguments and money. She said that if a bird flew in the house, someone close to you was going to die. If you put shoes or a hat on the bed, you were going to have a fight. If your left palm itched, you were going to get some money. She had many, many more.
I don’t know what it says about me that the only superstitions I chose to adopt have to do with money. I swear that nine times out of 10 when my left palm itches, I do receive a check or cash. And I always pluck heads-up coins off the sidewalk because they supposedly bring good luck—and now so do my daughters.
“Every culture has some version of superstitions, a belief that does not necessarily have fact to back it up,” said Gail Satler, a sociology professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead. “The sense is if you can do something to enhance your luck, why not do it? These are traditions that get repeated and passed down like other traditions. So many of them are to make you well, like eating chicken soup or wearing garlic. They really are all about well-being, and they are usually passed down by someone who cares about you. Why shouldn’t you give it a try?”
Satler said that even though we live in a world that is so science-centered, even very logical people like architects succumb to superstitions. “They don’t like to include 13 in their buildings. They find a way to bypass it because 13 doesn’t sell. For instance, my garage has 12A and 12B and then 14,” she said. “We all want to start out with all the cards stacked in our favor. It may start with the elders around you, but we all need to make sense of the world we live in.”
Satler referred to the good luck charms nearly everyone has, like an upturned horseshoe or lucky shirt. “We carry them or wear them because we figure they can’t hurt.
I think it means we’re open-minded in a world where we expect everything to make sense.”
Even so, there’s an evolutionary reason that superstitions exist, according to Dr. Simon Rego, director of psychological training at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. “There’s a movement in evolutionary psychology that explains why we like to hold on to these beliefs as a way to create control in a world where there are lots of uncertainties. Our need to predict potential threats in our surroundings evolved centuries ago. Those who didn’t predict what could happen didn’t live to reproduce. There were practical reasons for the initial existence of superstitions. At one time it may have truly been dangerous to walk under a ladder.”
For example, according to the book, The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Superstitions, the idea that it’s
unlucky to pass someone on a stairway originates from the time men wore swords, and walking past someone on a stairway could have been, well, impaling.
Furthermore, while every culture has their superstitions, said David Hicks, an anthropology professor at Stony Brook University, they are not necessarily universal. “What is superstition to one culture would seem confusing to another. Just look at religious rituals and how they vary. But we do know that everyone has some way to ward off bad luck.”
Rego said that family members tend to pass superstitions down either consciously so that they become part of the next generation’s belief system, or unconsciously through observation. “And they’re repeated so often—like throwing spilled salt over your shoulder to avoid bad luck—that they become so much a part of our culture that they take on a life of their own.”
It’s helpful to know that ultimately this can be healthy. Rego said, “We do these rituals so often that they are done almost unconsciously and we use them to alleviate stress, and we may not even be aware of that.” But Rego also warns against spurious connections, such as you break a mirror so that if something bad happens, as it is likely to do simply because bad things happen to all of us, you make the connection to the mirror.
“The healthiest approach to superstitions is to do whatever makes you feel the least anxiety,” said Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and author based in Beverly Hills, CA. “If you want to avoid walking under a ladder or stepping on cracks, even though the logical part of your mind is telling you the superstition is silly, just go along with the superstition anyway, rather than worry about what catastrophic punishment you may have brought upon yourself. You will know you’re taking superstitions too far if they start interfering with your work, family or social life.”
Meanwhile, since St. Patrick’s Day is near, the Irish have a superstition that may come in handy should a black cat cross your path on Friday the 13th. To counteract the bad luck, make a triangle shape with your thumbs and forefingers and spit at the cat through the opening. This can also be useful if you accidentally walk under a ladder. But in both cases, do pay attention to where you’re going or you could have the bad luck of tripping. Knock on wood, you’ll be okay.
I took a class with David Hicks at Stony Brook thirty years ago! He must know a thing or two about luck!