The Value of Superstitions

Superstitions. Like it or not, they are a fundamental part of life. Whatever community you live in, they will be there. Your Western friends will tell you to take good care of that mirror you have in your room, lest you break it and suffer seven years of bad luck. Meanwhile, your Chinese friends will tell you not to let that same mirror face your bed, lest your soul gets stolen while you sleep.

The above beliefs and many more abound in our everyday lives, and are steeped in traditions that go back centuries and even millenia. You might think that only a certain minority of the population subscribes to such beliefs, but the truth is that almost the entire human population believes in one superstition or another. If you go to hotels in China, don’t be surprised if you can’t find the 4th floor. Conversely, if you go to hotels in the States, or example, you can expect to find the 13th floor missing. Closer to home, take a good look at our Singaporean $1 coin. See the octagonal shape? There’s a reason for that, which ties in to certain Feng Shui beliefs about prosperity and warding off ill fortune. In other words, even prominent businessmen and government officials believe these things! Therefore, we must conclude that superstitions have a very strong grip on peoples’ beliefs – a grip that transcends national boundaries, cultures, social status and even religion.

Now, let’s take a closer look at some of these beliefs, particularly one I just mentioned. The number 13 is considered to be unlucky in the West, but lucky in China. For a brief explanation of why the Chinese believe 13 to be lucky, you can find it here. However, this raises an important contradiction. If Westerners shun the number 13, but the Chinese love it, then it naturally follows that if the Western belief is correct, the Chinese should be suffering all sorts of negative consequences, from plane crashes to house fires. Conversely, if the Chinese belief is correct, then the Chinese people should instead be awash with an endless stream of prosperity, longevity and happiness due to their infatuation with the number. Going by this logic, the Westerners must be fools to shun such a critical source of good fortune.

So, which belief is the correct one? I believe it is reasonable to say that neither belief is correct, for the simple reason that there is no clear and overwhelming evidence to prove either belief – evidence that should be clearly noticeable, visible, and significant. If the counterargument to that is that 13 is not strongly affiliated with either good or bad luck, then the question becomes: Why go to all these lengths to shun/covet the number, if you aren’t going to have the assurance that you are definitely avoiding bad luck or attracting good luck to yourself?

If superstitions aren’t true, why do so many people – virtually everyone – subscribe to them? To answer this question, I turn to a common concept in medicine and treatment: The placebo effect. In short, the placebo effect is a phenomenon where a placebo (a false form of treatment, such as tablets, pills or procedures that do not affect one’s health in any way) is able to bring about an improvement in a patient’s condition, simply due to the patient’s expectation that the placebo will be beneficial. In other words, the patient is able to fight back the disease or sickness afflicting him solely due to the power of his belief.

What then, is this disease that supposedly afflicts us all, that causes us to use superstitions as a placebo? While not a medical condition, this “disease” certainly has the ability to wreak havoc in our lives and well-being if we do not learn to deal with it correctly. This disease is an unchangeable tenet of our everyday existence: Uncertainty.

Uncertainty? Most don’t realize it, but we humans have a very poor capacity for dealing with it. The idea that we have no control over what might happen in the very next second, hour, week and decade is an unbearable one, because it offers us no assurance that we will succeed in whatever we try to do in our lives. What’s the point of studying for that medical degree if I don’t know whether a tree branch will drop on my head tomorrow? How can I leave my job where I hate my boss without knowing whether my next job will be any better?

Given our ineptitude at handling uncertainty, in steps the hero to save the day: Superstitious beliefs. By adhering to these beliefs, it gives us a sense of control (albeit a false one) in our lives that we would not have otherwise. Moving into a new house? I better roll a pineapple into the place before I step into it. By doing so, I gain the assurance that my life living in this new house should go more smoothly. Rolling a pineapple in may not actually make my life more smooth, but my belief that rolling the pineapple had such an effect is the true benefit here.  The same goes for any other superstition.

The human brain is an exceptionally powerful machine. The placebo effect proves that the saying “Mind over Body” really holds true to some extent. What you believe can literally change your mental and physical well-being and approach to life. And so at this point, I would like to pose some questions to you readers: Is it really necessary for you to feel that you have some control over your future, in order for you to have peace of mind? Are you the one controlling your beliefs, or are your beliefs controlling you?

Superstitions are here to stay. As long as people are unable to accept uncertainty, there will be a place for superstitions in their hearts and minds. What about you? Do you need such a placebo before you can forge your own path in life?

Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future with curiosity and optimism. It is the belief that problems can be solved, differences resolved. It is a type of confidence. And it is fragile. It can be blackened by fear and superstition.

– Bernard Beckett
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