How Does Superstition Affect Us?

Fearing Friday the 13th, panicking when you see a black cat, or believing that bad luck comes in threes. Superstition is all around us — but are these beliefs really harmless or do they have an effect on us and on society?

Thinking of things as lucky or unlucky doesn’t have a scientific basis. Research shows framing life experiences as a result of good or bad luck negatively impacts our mental health and affects the way we see ourselves in the world. At best, it brings short-lived excitement to think that we’re experiencing good luck; at worst, it can feel like some unstoppable power holds us back despite all our efforts. When taken seriously, superstitions can begin to chip away at our sense of agency.

But plenty of us see superstitions as being all in good fun or part of long-held traditions.

A 2019 survey by YouGov found that 11 percent of Americans believe that Friday the 13th  is “probably” or “definitely” an unlucky day. While that may not seem like that many people, that’s still a little more than one in 10 Americans who experience some degree of concern about Friday the 13th — and they’re mostly young people. Interestingly enough, the population most likely to experience anxiety over this date are people between the ages of 25 and 34. 

That survey doesn’t even look at more common ideas of what’s considered unlucky — like Mercury in retrograde, or the groom seeing the bride in her wedding dress before the ceremony. 

Whether you earnestly believe a superstition, think it’s fun, or hold some because it’s tradition, it’s important to examine why we do everything we do. We all have the responsibility of discovering the truth instead of blindly following others:

God has created in man the power of reason whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to blindly imitate his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind or the faculty of reasoning by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth; and that which he finds real and true, he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 

As a Baha’i, I believe in God because I investigated the truth. I read the writings of different religions, read the history of many religions, prayed, and saw the effect prayer had. As a result, I found that the most reasonable explanation to the order in this world is that a Higher Power exists. Therefore, I don’t believe that God’s existence is a superstition. 

However, this isn’t the end of my journey. I’m always reading and studying, and if I were to eventually find that reason and science no longer support the existence of God, I would change my opinion. The Baha’i teachings say:

…We must cast aside such beliefs [superstitions] and investigate reality. That which is found to be real and conformable to reason must be accepted, and whatever science and reason cannot support must be rejected as imitation and not reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, Ibid.

It follows, then, that we should also critically examine our superstitions using reason and science. And if they aren’t supported, then it might be wise to start to shift away from them — yes, even from the concept of luck, on Friday the 13th or on any other day.

The Baha’i teachings say that superstition is one of the leading causes of disunity. Many of society’s problems come from our inability to agree with each other on reality. A diversity of social and cultural experiences coupled with a lack of communication and selfishness lead to confusion and prejudices, which themselves are a form of superstition. We see this happening between different genders, races, cultures, generations, and religions. People remain in their bubbles instead of openly investigating reality.

Man must free himself from the . . . thorns of superstitions . . . that he may discover reality in the harvests of true knowledge. Otherwise the discovery of reality is impossible, contention and divergence of religious belief will always remain and mankind, like ferocious wolves will rage and attack each other in hatred and antagonism. – Abdu’l-Baha, Ibid.

Sure, fearing Friday the 13th may be mostly harmless, but it’s one of the many symptoms of our society’s great need to investigate our reality further, together. We can all think about how our individual superstitions, small and great, contribute to our personal health and world unity.

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