Do black cats, bats and witches have you on the run not just at Halloween but year-round? Do you always avoid walking under ladders and stepping on sidewalk cracks?

These behaviors can all be linked to a strong belief that has been embedded in human history — superstitions, according to a Kansas State University professor.

Don Saucier, associate professor of psychology, said superstitions are behaviors that people perform in an attempt to affect or control their future. Superstitious behaviors are a way people think they can control their fate by performing certain tasks in a certain way to either help alleviate anxiety or to simply better their chances in a certain situation.

"People believe in superstitions to try to restore some prediction and control to their world," Saucier said. "Not knowing what will happen to them is discomforting, and performing superstitious behavior can make people feel a little better about the future."

Saucier said that theoretically, any behavior could be a superstition if a person associates that behavior incorrectly with a positive or negative event that follows. A person can associate the behavior and the following event, and come to believe that the behavior caused the event to happen An example is athletes who often wear the same clothes — sometimes without washing them — to preserve a winning streak. Another example is the athletes who grow "playoff beards" and refuse to shave until the season is over.

Superstitions may go back as long as mankind. A few examples have been seen through religious and spiritual beliefs, as well as amulets, totems and charms that were used to ward off evil, according to Saucier. Some also may argue that sacrifices in past civilizations were superstitious behaviors performed to receive more good luck.

Saucier said that if a person’s superstitious behavior and the events it’s linked to are shown repeatedly to be unassociated, then the superstition could go away. This process is called extinction in learning theory. But if the association reappears for the person, then the superstition can come back.
Find the Kansas State University release here.

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