Steve Joordens doesn’t get spooked by Friday the 13th, a black cat crossing his path, or spilling salt.
But, this University of Toronto psychology professor does have one superstition. While on vacation, he braces for three bad things to happen. So if he loses his luggage, misses a train or forgets his camera, he puts the blame squarely on Loki, known in Norse mythology as a mischievous trickster.
“This bizarre, completely irrational, belief helps me deal with those annoyances and frustrations,” Joordens says. “I can shake them off and say, ‘Oh, Loki is having fun with us.’ ”
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Essentially, it’s a way of telling himself to not sweat the small stuff and accept life’s little annoyances.
Superstitions or so-called magical thinking — the belief that an action, symbol or event can cause an outcome when there’s no logical connection — have long helped humans make sense of a chaotic world. They give us “an illusion of control,” believing that we can invite good or bad luck.
“We like to feel things happen for a reason and … that we have some ability to shape the things that will happen to us in life,” Joordens says. “We all feel psychologically healthier when we feel like we have some control over events. Superstitions give us a sense that we have a bit of control over the future and I think that makes us feel good.”
He says people like to think they are rational and give considerable thought to things before doing them — but rational thought isn’t natural. Humans are hard-wired to learn from watching others and believe that certain behaviours result in reward or punishment. When you put those two forces together it’s easy to understand how superstitions — often rooted in religion, folklore and mythology — have thrived and remain strong, he says.
Even “smart, educated, emotionally stable adults” have superstitions they recognize aren’t rational, says Jane Risen, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago in a 2015 paper published in Psychological Review. For instance, sports fans don their favourite team’s jersey on game day for good luck even though they know it won’t change the outcome. Risen believes there’s a dual process at play: People detect irrational thought and choose not to change their behaviour, which she describes as “acquiescence.” They may be more likely to ignore rational thought if they feel like the stakes are high. For instance, someone who gets a chain letter knows breaking the chain won’t truly invite bad luck, but doesn’t dare risk it and forwards the letter.
Acquiescence explains how people can believe superstitions they know are false and why they follow powerful intuitions that are contrary to reason, writes Risen. This helps us understand “why superstitious thinking is widespread, why particular beliefs arise, and why they are maintained even though they are not true.”
To illustrate this point, Risen tells the anecdote of a friend who visited the home of Nobel Prize winner physicist Niels Bohr and spotted a horseshoe hanging over the door. The friend asked if he believed in the horseshoe superstition. “Of course not,” replied Bohr. “But I understand it’s lucky whether you believe in it or not.”
American psychologist Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, says there may be some upside to superstition. Let’s say you’ve got a big game or a
But there are definite downsides, especially to phobic superstitions, such as Friday the 13th.
“There will be people who will think twice about things they have scheduled for that day or will worry about something,” says Vyse, adding people avoid travel, medical appointments and
“On (Friday 13) babies will be born and it will be the happiest day in the world for many people,” says Vyse, speaking from Connecticut.
There are a few theories about the origins of Friday the 13th. Vyse believes it’s rooted in the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, where there were 13 dinner guests, one of whom would betray Jesus leading to his execution the next day. After that, 13 dinner guests was considered bad luck and the actual number became superstitious — so much so that many buildings today lack a 13th floor.
Fridays got a bad rap because in medieval Europe it was hangman’s day, when public hangings took place, he says. So when the 13th coincided with a Friday, it was a double whammy. Some believe the origins of that inauspicious day are linked to Friday, Oct. 13, 1307, marking the beginning of the end of the Knights Templar, many of whom were arrested and tortured by order of King Philip IV of France, who wanted their wealth.
Share your thoughts
Vyse says he’s never been superstitious. But under the right circumstances, even he is susceptible. He was once on a flight with a colleague and experienced some severe turbulence, which made him extremely anxious.
“I was white knuckling it through this flight,” recalls Vyse. “When (my colleague) pointed out that we were in the 13th row I felt an additional twinge of fear. Then I realized the whole plane will go down — if it goes down — and not just my row. So it passed quickly.”
Readers share their superstitions
To some it was a superstition snafu. In a call-out to readers, asking about their superstitions, the Star used a photo of a horseshoe, with the opening pointed down. Readers pointed out that we messed up. A horseshoe’s ends must point up, resembling a U, to catch good luck, as opposed to pointing down which allows luck to spill out. One reader said the photo was “an insult to true believers” and “invites nothing but bad luck.” But, as it turns out, some folks believe that hanging it with the opening down, means they will be showered with good luck. It just goes to show how superstitions can vary.
Here’s more of what we heard:
Pam Powell travels a lot for work and always wears one of these necklaces — they commemorate her daughters — whenever she flies. They bring her good luck and keep her safe. (Photo Supplied)
I travel a lot for work, and when I fly I have to wear one of two necklaces that commemorate my daughters Amanda, 12, and Samantha, 10. I bought the necklaces as a way of keeping them close to me while travelling and then it turned into a superstition: I must wear one when I fly. I feel that as long as I have it on, I will be safe because they are protecting me. Like, how can anything happen to a mom who has to return to her kids? I have left for the airport without wearing one and returned home to get it. Those necklaces are on the same checklist as my passport. — Pam Powell, Burlington
I have many superstitions but I think my most credulous is 13 at the dinner table. In our family this originated with my grandmother who was from Trinidad and a very religious lady. If she had 13 guests at the table, an extra complete place setting would be set. This is something I still do to this day. — Cathy Wallace, Newmarket
When I enter and exit an airplane, I tap the outside fuselage a couple of times with my palm. When I was very young, I was curious to feel the fuselage and touching it soon became the norm every time I flew. On one trip, the pilot assured me “Don’t worry. It’s sturdy and safe.” I’m not sure why I continue this odd superstition, but I don’t feel settled unless I do. Once, I completely forgot and after storing my luggage, I rushed back and tapped the outside just as the attendant closed the airplane door. — Lucinda Rajaselvan, Scarborough
Klara Hada grew up with the superstition that if you put a knife down on its edge you’ll be poor. (Photo Supplied)
Growing up in Hungary, I remember my grandmother would become really upset if a knife was placed on its edge. She would say, “When you let a knife stand on its edge, you’ll be poor. Set that knife on the proper side.” Now if you asked me, I would say that I never mentioned this to my children because it seemed so silly. One day, my granddaughter, who’s in her 20s, was with me in the kitchen when I put a knife down on the counter and it landed on its edge. She said, “We have to turn it or else we’ll be poor!” So, could it be genetic? — Klara Hada, Toronto
Doug Sparks had this bracelet made of lucky pennies. (Photo Supplied)
I never thought about it much, but I must be superstitious. It started 8 years ago when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After surgery and radiation treatments, I began noticing pennies on the ground. I picked them up, and for whatever reason, put them in a small plastic bag. They seemed like “lucky pennies” and each time I went for a medical appointment, I’d put them in my pocket. Over the next few years, I continued finding “lucky pennies,” even after Canada discontinued them. I have seven pennies and some have obvious damage from being on the street. Last year, I made them into a bracelet that I often wear for “luck.” I’m now 8 years cancer-free. These pennies must be lucky. — Doug Sparks, Oakville
I grew up with two dear, wonderful — and very superstitious — grandmothers from Ukraine, who instilled in me some key life lessons. Never walk over a grate or you’ll fall in. Never put shoes on the table because it’s bad luck. Never step over anyone if they’re lying on the floor because they’ll stop growing — if you do, you must immediately step back over. Don’t laugh too hard or for too long or else you’ll cry at night. Always turn away if you’re being stared at because you’ll get sick. And if you put an article of clothing on inside out, you must wear it like that all day because if you reverse it, it’s bad luck. To this day, I still abide by these superstitions — and I’m 60. In part, it’s a way of remembering my grandmothers and feeling close to them. — Caroline Nisbet, Etobicoke
I am indeed superstitious. An umbrella opening indoors will elicit a response that somewhat resembles a bomb going off with me hitting the deck, hands over my head to protect me from the ultimate act of asking for bad luck. Don’t even think about dropping your hat on a bed if you don’t want to see me fly through the air Clint Eastwood-style to stop it from reaching the blanket. And everyone knows that bad news or events come in 3s. Where I get really serious is knocking on wood to protect myself from the manifestation of a negative thought. A friend actually gifted me a portable block of wood for this purpose! — Dee Nicholson, Toronto
I do not really consider myself superstitious. I’m not bothered by Friday the 13th, a black cat crossing my path, breaking a mirror, an itchy palm or walking under a ladder. But on a recent trip to Cuba, I found a horseshoe at the side of a road. I tried to give it to a Cuban who had a horse-drawn buggy, but he told me the shoe was too old and worn to be of use. So, I brought it home and nailed it to my garage door in the hope that it may bring me luck. — Mara Glebovs, Toronto