What Effects Could Superstition Have on Our Psychological Well-Being?

India has a rich history and culture which is one of the many things that makes us proud of our country. But another undeniable fact is that it is also a land of many superstitions. ‘If a cat crosses your path it would bring bad luck, ‘keeping a knife under one’s pillow can prevent bad dreams’, and ‘sweeping the house in the evening drives away prosperity’. These are some of the many superstitions that most Indians believe in.

Although these superstitions aren’t necessarily harmful to most people, there have been many incidents in which someone’s extreme superstitious belief led to a loss of lives. These kinds of cases raise questions — what is the limit to being superstitious? Are they bad for us? In this article, we will try to explore the reasons why we form so many superstitions and what effects they could be having on our everyday psychology and mental health.

What are superstitions?

Superstitions can be defined as false beliefs and ideas that do not have a rational base. people usually form superstitions out of fear of the unknown. Superstitions mostly have a cultural or traditional connection and since ancient times people have been using superstitions as a means to feel a sense of understanding and control over life. Superstition is a very common part of Indian culture. Due to the rich diversity of culture in our country, superstitions exist in the everyday life of most individuals.

We put lemon and chilies on our doors to safeguard our homes and shops from the evil eye.
We also do not eat or bathe during solar and moon eclipses. While these superstitious beliefs are meant to keep us safe and healthy, many dangerous superstitious rituals cause serious physical danger and sometimes cause loss of death. The Indian constitution gives its people full religious freedom, but because the threats of practicing dangerous superstitious rituals were visible, the 42nd amendment of fundamental duties was included in the constitution that expects every Indian citizen to have a spirit of inquiry and a scientific temperament. The Indian government continuously tries to fight the superstition that causes our society serious damage. In 2013, Maharashtra became the first state to pass a law against superstition when ‘The Maharashtra prevention and eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil, and Aghori practices and Black Magic Act was passed. Since then, many legislations against superstitious rituals have been passed in different states around the country.

Where do superstitions come from?

But not all rituals or beliefs can be considered superstitions. The main difference between a general belief and a superstitious belief is the magical effect we believe it to have. There can be different types of superstitions religious, social, and cultural. Often people believe in superstitions despite knowing somewhere in their mind that it is not practically possible.

When Jane Risen, a member of the American Psychological Society, tried to study the reason behind this, he used the dual process model of cognition to explain this. He stated that humans can do both, fast and slow thinking. The fast way of thinking normally involves intuitive or hasty decision making and the slow thinking involves decisions that are made calmly and after rational thinking. He said that it is possible that people follow a belief, realize that it is faulty and senseless, but still choose to not act on it. Then they keep on following it because doing so relieves their anxiety about the unknown.

How does believing in superstitions affect a person’s mental well-being?

The thing we need to understand is that superstitions don’t just propose a physical danger to us but they can also negatively affect mental well-being in long term. In india the causes of different mental health problems are mostly similar to those of any other place in the world but some factors are unique to our country and superstition is one of them.

For people who tend to suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), having a superstitious belief can greatly increase their struggle as their obsessive nature would make it extremely hard for them to dismiss the superstitious behavior. This can then further increase their anxiety. This is famously known as ‘magical thinking’. The difference between general OCD and magical thinking OCD is that in the former the compulsions are performed because not doing so causes anxiety to the individual. Whereas in the latter they are performed out of fear that not doing certain actions or rituals would result in something very bad.

What good could come out of following superstitions?

But not all superstitions are always bad for everyone. They can also help people in many ways. For instance, for some people, following a superstition can help relieve anxiety. This could be one of the main reasons why superstitions have existed in our society for so long. According to an article in the Internation Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences, in ancient times, our ancestors didn’t have much knowledge about how to keep themselves safe in the world of so many natural calamities and wild predators. The feeling of lack of control over their safety in the wild must have been a source of great anxiety and superstitions must have been a way to have a sense of control. The same could be the reason why they are still used when people have low confidence, insecurity, and fear of the outcome.

Superstitions can also help improve one’s performance. Stuart Vyse, in his book Believing in Magic: the psychology of superstition, explains the possible reason behind this. He states that the superstitions that are performed for good luck give the individual a psychological benefit that helps him/her perform better. The anxiety that comes because one doesn’t have control over the situation, and the feeling of good luck that comes after performing the ritual gives a sense of assurance for a positive outcome. 

Another reason why people prefer performing superstitious rituals is that they feel doing so is a very small price they can pay for a good outcome than facing the possible negative outcome in the event of not performing those rituals. This could be the reason why rituals like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes or touching wood when one comment on something good about another person, is still so prevalent even in youngsters.
Superstitions have existed in our society for a very long time. They are deeply rooted in our traditions and culture. It is neither required nor possible that everyone completely stops believing in all superstitions because if nothing, they at least provide psychological and emotional benefits to some people. Therefore, the best we can do is that we are cautious of their effect on our life functioning and mental health. If an individual is unable to prevent oneself from performing certain rituals and experiencing dysfunction in other areas of life because of that. It is a sign that it has turned into a psychological issue and they seek mental health assistance. 

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