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Superstitions ain’t the way

Aldina Braganza

Being brought up in a culture where superstitions are a part of traditions, I am no stranger to the lucky charm idiosyncrasy. It’s just not us, more than half of the world’s population has their own peculiarities. But when beliefs dictate life’s course, then superstitions confront my scientific temperament about human understanding. In doing so I hope I can help you with managing your quirks without losing out on opportunities waiting to open up for you.

Superstitions are in fact very fascinating for behaviour scientists as they reveal the mysteries of the human brain. Broadly defined, they are a set of beliefs we possess to try to control the predictability of an event. Most people have their superstitions where they believe in a greater external force, which seems illogical but magical in quality. It could be an unlucky number bias, or a lucky talisman, black cat or the daily horoscope. Whatever it may be, if it is hindering the way you live your life, then you need to work through it.

Life is ninety per cent made up of uncontrollable events. Security is an illusion and none of us can predict anything. We may believe we can, but truly, we cannot.  And this is where our magical thinking begins.  

When we are not in control of events and things get out of hand, lucky charms work for many, how and why it works is interesting.

In a study conducted with young students who were asked to keep their lucky charm, and those that were not allowed to keep their lucky charms, while performing simple task of solving anagrams, researcher Lysann Damisch and team found stark differences in performances. The reasons they identified: students who had their lucky charm with them spend more time in trying to solve the anagrams rather than worrying about the outcome.

Such results point to an amazing power of the human mind. When we possess certain beliefs, the outcome can vary. Those students didn’t excel because of their lucky charm but because their belief enhanced their confidence. Superstitions work as cognitive boosters.

Magical thinking is not only comforting but acts as a powerful psychological lever that we can use to access the force within ourselves. This in turn affects our ability to achieve what we want. It gives us a sense of control and confidence.

Superstitious beliefs like divination (prophecy) however can cause people to seek out all that is negative in order that the prophecy comes true. In that process we lose out on the beauty that life could unfold for us. We miss out on the lessons and gifts.

Wanting more control and certainty is the driving force behind most superstitions. In fact people would rather believe in a false certainty than no certainty at all.

Superstitions are almost ritualistic in nature and begin from a simple association. The associations we make between our lucky dress and good performance or the unlucky number and bad day is what we also see in birds. The famous psychiatrist Skinner, published his pioneering study on pigeons that developed superstitious behaviour for food rewards. The birds would act in particular ways like rotating their head clockwise, or moving in particular patterns, believing that by acting in this particular way or committing a certain action, food would arrive. If birds can be so easily trained to behave in a particular pattern although illogical, it is not surprising why humans would not be subject to such idiosyncrasies of reinforcements.

Some superstitions might seems quirky and others perplexing like the superstitions of the evil eye, which is worth the probe. There is not much research that points to the associative component of this superstition but there is much mentioned about the various traditions that are practiced worldwide about this behaviour.

In attempting to write this article I had to inquire about what was the general feeling regarding dishthi or nodor, which is what the evil eye is commonly referred to in Goa. People swear by their own experiences of how their ripe papayas would fall off a tree and their mango tree would become barren for the rest of the seasons as a result of bhuri nodor.

The evil eye is a human look or negative vibes that are believed to cause harm. This supernatural harm may come in the form of anything – various illnesses, as loss of appetite, excessive yawning, vomiting, abscess and fever.

The associations of the evil eye is not difficult to comprehend given that the eye itself is an important source of energy and a gateway to the soul. However, it is interesting to note that evil eye is more prevalent in societies where there is an underlying inequality in the socioeconomic status. The victims see themselves as being more fortunate than the offender.

Intelligence has nothing to do with superstitions. Superstitions have got a lot to do with one’s sensibility towards life and confidence in their decisions. As long as superstitions enhance your confidence it is perfectly alright, go ahead and indulge yourself; unless of course they become a source of denied opportunities, unwarranted anxiety and dismayed relationships.

(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)

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