Do you 'believe'?
One of my friends who only recently returned from living abroad called me the other day to lament about how superstitious Barbadians have become. The impetus to this conversation lies in a situation where one of her neighbours (who was apparently ill for sometime) appeared to die suddenly. So since she did not know that he was ill she sought to enquire of his widow the nature of his illness.
To her surprise the widow took a few minutes to respond and then in a very low, whispered tone said he died from ‘the ting’. So of course she asked what ‘ting’? At this point the widow who showed a mixture of annoyance, sadness and confusion, still in a low voice, whispered that ‘the ting’ had brought ‘it’ on.
My friend was still not satisfied so on the day of the funeral she asked the man’s daughter who just replied that her Dad was suffering from prostate cancer for some time and had finally succumbed to his illness. Hence the phone call asking me what I thought about the widow’s whispered tones and reference to her husband’s illness as ‘the ting’. So the article this week is about the psychology of superstition.
Every culture has its share of superstitious beliefs and Barbados is no exception. Some of us regardless of our religious beliefs believe that on Friday the 13th anything that can go wrong does go wrong. Some also believe that if you speak ill of the dead they may come back to haunt you.
Others believe that certain colours can bring bad luck and some do not start the day unless they read their horoscope to find out what the stars predict for them. Yet others believe that should you run into a spot of bad luck you should enter the sea backwards or throw a pinch of salt over both shoulders. While another friend added that opening an umbrella indoors would release evil spirits. The final one I will mention here, is placing a bible in the crib next to a new born baby to ward off evil spirits before it is baptised. Thus, it appears that we are a country of superstitious people, but we are not alone in these beliefs.
My research about the psychology of superstition revealed that early psychologists were concerned about the effect superstition had on human behavior, so trying to understand it is not new. In his book “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition” Stuart Vyse (nd) made reference to ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece where priests in those early times linked spirituality with magic in order to inspire their flock. But this is not new, fast forward to today where some spiritual groups believe that they can bring about the healing of diseases through what is commonly known as “faith healing”.
According to Vyse, (as cited in WebMD) individuals globally may knock on wood or avoid a black cat because they have some belief in superstition. In some cases, famous players of baseball or soccer may demonstrate the belief that if they tap the ball a certain way it will cause them to score more runs/goals.
So you may wonder where the psychology comes into play. Since psychology includes the study of behavior we must examine how superstition impacts on said behavior. In relation to athletes, beliefs in superstition may be helpful in calming their nerves hence enabling them to focus on the game and enhance performance.
This behavior, according to Sarah Albert, is not considered superstitious however, the belief that tapping the ball a certain number of times will bring success is considered superstitious. Furthermore, there are some people who do not go out on a date or respond to any event that is scheduled to occur on the 13th day if that day will fall on a Friday. While others will only speak in hushed tones while in a graveyard and others can be observed making the sign of the cross when passing a grave.
When we were little it was common to hear older folks say not to point at the headstone of a grave or fingers will fall off and when walking through a graveyard we were encouraged to speak softly so we would not disturb the spirits of the dearly departed.
What is even more contemporary is the general belief that one must not speak evil of the dead and so it is common to attend a funeral of a “not so upstanding” citizen to hear the priest/pastor say only good things about them. This often leaves one to wonder if one is at the right funeral.
In relation to colours, there are some individuals who would not wear green since they believe it will bring grief or they will always experience bad luck. While others believe that if their horoscope predicts positive things they will indeed have a good day or month or even a year.
There is also the belief that if one is having repeated numbers of bad luck a visit to the sea and entering the water backward will change this luck from bad to good. On the other hand, some can be observed sprinkling a pinch of salt over each shoulder to ward off evil spirits and this behaviour makes them happy.
Finally, the most common superstitious behavior is knocking on wood when we make a wish or say something good to prevent wickedness from intervening. But the most mind boggling superstitious belief is that spitting on the bride as she walks up the aisle will bring good luck (My Big Fat Greek Wedding movie). One cannot help but wonder if this belief defies modern medical warnings about the spread of viruses and germs.
So at this point you may be wondering why all these beliefs emerged from among right thinking humans like us. Well, according to Sarah Albert (Web MD) we seem to have a need for control over our environment so belief in superstitions provides that support. She further suggests that we as humans like order and therefore in seeking such we create rules about why certain events come about. By so doing, we suppress our feelings of uncertainty and become more assured of our outcomes.
Finally, it is believed that belief in superstitions can help reduce our anxieties and allow positive and creative thinking to emerge (Vyse, as cited in Albert: Web MD, http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/psychology-of-superstition).
So, does this explain anything to my friend in the opening vignette? Well let me suggest a reason. The lady did not want to talk about her husband’s illness because she did not have any control over his fate. This may sound like a strange explanation but according to Vyse, people with high external locus of control (who believe that they do not have control over what happens to them) are more likely to believe that some unknown “ting” caused a situation of which they have little control. Such people are not pathological but simply hold superstitious beliefs. Until next time … “knock on wood”.
* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: (246) 436-4215