Have you ever known someone to carry a rabbit’s foot believing it gave them “good luck”? Maybe the foot wasn’t as lucky for the rabbit, but then again, how do we know? Maybe that particular rabbit lived a long and hoppy (er, happy) life. What about four-leaf clovers? You won’t find too many of them in any given clover field, and their very rarity seems to give them a special significance. Other beliefs can be found regarding the effect that breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder can have on your luck.
These traditions aren’t consistent around the world. Take the tradition of hanging a horseshoe on a door for example. In some places, it needs to be hung with the ends pointing upward, and in other places, the ends need to point down. In still other places, it doesn’t matter which way the points face as long as the shoe itself can be touched.
Superstitions are not limited to traditional folk beliefs passed down from generation to generation. We’ve all heard stories about modern sports fanatics who wear their “lucky shirt” to every game to maintain a winning streak. And if it isn’t a piece of clothing associated with winning, maybe it’s an action they do (or don’t do) before a game.
We can understand why some people believe the old superstitions because they’ve been handed down through the generations, but where do superstitions come from in the first place? Someone had to be the first to believe there was a connection between things like a rabbit’s foot and good luck.
To answer this question, we have to understand something about ourselves. You see, our brains are wired to make connections between things – it’s how we learn. Our ability to learn and adapt gave us an advantage over the other animals of the jungle, allowing us to create tools to help us do things better. However, it also predisposes us to make connections without any logical reason behind them.
A perfect example is an experience I’m having as I write this chapter. My laptop computer has developed a problem and frequently stalls during the startup process. To learn what the problem could be, I’ve tried several things, most of which hasn’t changed it’s startup behavior. At one time, I thought I found a clue when it seemed to start normally whenever I unplugged the network cable. After failing to start properly ten times in a row, I unplugged the network cable and my computer suddenly started right up. Plug the cable back in and it failed. Unplug the cable and it worked. Yep, that must have been the problem. The next time I turned my laptop on, I forgot about the cable and left it plugged in. My computer failed to start properly. I unplugged the cable and it started up fine. Confirmation again that I was right, despite there not being any apparent reason for it.
This morning, however, I unplugged the cable before I turned on my laptop and it failed to start up. Again and again I tried, but to no avail. The network cable was NOT the problem. But for a while, I began to believe it was.
Situations like this help us understand how superstitions get started. Someone notices that they have some minor accident after walking under a ladder. If it happens enough times, a belief is formed – walking under a ladder is ‘bad luck’. Then they share their insight with others and those who hear this start to wonder if it might happen to them, and the belief starts to spread like a virus and become a superstition.