Hannah Copsey discusses if there’s reasoning behind some of our strangest superstitions.
Unlucky 13, black cats, spilling salt and breaking mirrors; it’s not uncommon for deeply rooted superstitions to become interwoven with our everyday lives. What is the science behind this and should we allow these superstitions to have an impact on our behaviour?
Evolutionary biologist Dr Kevin Foster defines superstition as the belief that one event has caused another, despite there being no evidence to support it. Foster eludes to superstitious behaviour displayed in pigeons upon hearing loud noises. Pigeons, despite being smart enough to distinguish a clap of hands from a lethal gun shot, take flight upon hearing a handclap in an act of superstitious behaviour. This ‘better safe than sorry’ approach could be seen as a possible advantage when faced with predation, as a species reacting as if a predator is present may survive longer than less cautious creatures.
This ‘better safe than sorry’ approach could be seen as a possible advantage when faced with predation, as a species reacting as if a predator is present may survive longer than less cautious creatures.
Whilst the potential benefit of superstitious behaviour is observed in some animals, human tendencies can sometimes be more complex. A recent BBC documentary highlights the impact superstitions have on a young girl Amy, who spends up to four hours a day searching for two magpies in order to ward off bad luck. As a sufferer of anxiety and panic attacks, Amy cannot start her day without the special sighting.
Extreme cases such as Amy’s impose a question as to how far we should read into superstitious events. If there is a point at which superstitions are getting in the way of our daily lives, should we still allow these chance events to dictate aspects of how we behave? Furthermore, the idea of superstition in itself implies that we don’t have control of outcomes in our lives that we may have worked hard to achieve. The question remains, but it is clear that superstitions have become more than the triviality of magazine horoscopes.