The Wall Street Journal:
It starts when people try something different—Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola, a blue tie instead of the old red one—and find that something good happens.
Soon, without realizing it, someone who wouldn’t think twice about, say, walking under a ladder or traveling on Friday the 13th begins to associate their new behavior with good luck—and starts reaching for the Pepsi again and again.
Such “conditioned superstitions” can develop when people believe there is something they can do to control a situation, despite there being no rational reason to think so, says Gita Johar, a professor of business at Columbia University who recently co-wrote a paper on the phenomenon. Recent research shows that superstitions that increase the illusion of control can help people find meaning and psychological comfort—and in some cases, even boost performance.
Reminding people of their good traits makes them more emotionally secure, says Claude Steele, an early researcher into the psychology of self-affirmation and now a dean in Stanford University’s graduate school of education. “If I feel secure that I am a good person, I can be more open to threat in general, and that makes me less needful of being superstitious,” he adds. It isn’t that people no longer think their team will lose, or that they’ll fail a test, he says. Instead, self-affirmation makes them more psychologically resilient, and helps them realize they can cope even if something bad happens.
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