What Is Superstitious Behavior & Can It Be A Problem?

Updated August 30, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The dictionary.com definition of superstitious is “a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.”

Superstitions are culturally influenced at times, and they can even differ from person to person. Most people engage in some form of superstitious behavior or thinking at some point in time, which is generallyharmless. For example, one may avoid picking up a coin on the sidewalk if it’s heads down because they were told as children that it would cause bad luck — whether they believe that that’s actually true or not. As long as it doesn’t disrupt someone's life or cause distress, these things are not likely a cause for concern.

What Is Superstitious Behavior?

According to psychology, superstitious behavior arises when "the delivery of a reinforcer or punisher occurs close together in time with an independent behavior." An example would look like this: You're walking down the street, and a black cat approaches you. Minutes later, you cross the street and nearly get hit by a bus. You attribute this incident to the presence of the black cat and henceforth avoid all black cats. The reason you're making this illogical association is the common belief that black cats bring bad luck or are omens of such. Your near accident positively reinforced this belief. In this context, avoiding all black cats is superstitious behavior.

According to Damish et al. (2010), who did a meta-analysis on the effect of superstitions on performance, superstitions may benefit those who practice them due to the fact that they “[boost] participants' confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.” It is rather common behavior for many people to rely on superstitious routines and practices for good luck daily. According to Stuart Vyse, an American psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, superstitious behaviors have a purpose. "They … come from the uncertainty of life — if you have something you desire that you cannot make sure will happen, you might engage in superstitious behavior." Superstitions often provide the illusion of control, which may explain why they offer us a reprieve from uncertainty in life.

When Is Superstitious Behavior Harmful?

Superstitious behavior in itself isusually harmless and can be viewed as an innocuous way to control anxiety over uncertainty. However, if the superstitious behavior at hand is a compulsion that interferes with a person's ability to function every day, it may be indicative of a greater concern, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) And Superstitious Behavior

What Is OCD?

Daily Habits Can Be Symptoms Of A Mental Health Disorder

One of the most common anxiety disorders, OCD is mostly defined by its symptoms. These are characterized by obsessive thoughts, images, impulses, or ideas, and subsequent compulsive behavior.

Obsessionsare unwanted thoughts, ideas, or images. Some people may experience a form of obsession — or what they may call an obsession — at some point in their life (think infatuation with a partner or intensely following a sports team), but this usually does not arise to what a person who lives with OCD experiences. The fixations can be debilitating and cause great anxiety, to the point where the person engages in compulsions.

Compulsive behavior in OCD is an attempt to find relief from the thoughts or fears that occur. It often constitutes engagement in a specific continuous and repetitive action, like hand washing, pacing, locking and unlocking doors, and so on. The compulsion doesn't have to directly relate to the obsession. Compulsions can cause an individual to feel pain, guilt, remorse, anxiety,and grief, and they may take up a significant amount of time or mental and psychological space. However, the fear of stopping compulsions is typically very strong.

What Is OCD Behavior And Is It The Same As Superstitious Behavior?

In obsessive-compulsive disorder, you will usually notice one or more of the following traits:

  • An obsession of some kind, which can be related to cleanliness, relationships, etc.
  • Repetitive behavior, such as praying, counting, checking of locks, doors, and windows, etc.
  • Hoarding of objects.

Behavior in those who live with this condition can appear ritualistic, and scientists have speculated that superstition and OCD are linked. One hallmark of OCD is that the compulsions are uncontrollable and often recognized as not being productive by the client. Belief, on the other hand, drives superstitious behavior.

There is also an indication of a neurological aspect to OCD behavior vs. superstitious behavior. In an article published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, Brugger (Ph.D.) and Viaud-Delmon (Ph.D.) state: "We propose that the origin of superstitious rituals in OCD primarily involves the basal ganglia ‘habit system,’ including its connections with the … frontal cortex. Dysfunction of this neural circuitry is prominent in clients with OCD and OC-spectrum disorders. It is responsible for behavioral routines … and the client typically recognizes irrationality. Nonetheless, recognition of the senselessness of the repetitive motor displays does not enable a client to break the routine. Significantly, whether superstitiously motivated or not, perseveration is an almost defining feature of an obsessive-compulsive ritual."

Very simply put — superstitious behavior, while based on irrational and illogical thought, usually doesn't interfere with a person's daily functioning and is driven by personal belief. In a person with OCD, behavior is also based on unsound logic, but their compulsions are aimed at relieving uncontrolled anxiety and can, in severe cases, interfere with daily functioning. A person with OCD realizes the irrationality or inappropriateness of their behavior but may feel incapable of stopping the ritual. In short, OCD and superstitious behavior are not the same.

Treatment For OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder can only be diagnosed and treated by a qualified provider, like a psychiatrist. The diagnostic process does look a little bit different for everyone anddepends on a number of different factors. However, steps for a positive diagnosis can include:

  • Physical examination to rule out other physiological concerns causing OCD symptoms and to check for any related complications.
  • Psychological evaluation, which may include discussing behavior with family or friends, asking the person questions about their symptoms, and so on.
  • Ensuring that symptoms are not better attributed to another diagnosis.

Treatment is aimed at symptom relief, as there is no known cure for OCD to date. This may include the following types of psychotherapy:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP) — a subset of CBT that involves desensitization to a feared object or obsession. It also involves learning habits and ways to cope with anxiety.
  • Group and family sessions.
  • Deep brain stimulation and other alternative therapies, if a client doesn't respond to traditional treatments.

Medications are sometimes prescribed as a form of treatment as well.Please make sure to consult with your prescribing physician before starting a new medication, stopping a medication, or modifying your medication routine.

It is important to note that behaviors or thoughts that may be seen as superstitious could also be attributed to another medical or mental health condition that is not obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is part of why it is so crucial to see a professional for a diagnosis if something is going on that impacts you or your life in a way that is unfavorable.

As for superstition in general, it isn’t a “bad” thing. Some superstitions can even be simple fun. With that, you might wonder, what’s the prevalence?

What Is The Prevalence Of Superstitious Beliefs?

A survey conducted in the USA in 2014 demonstrated that the majority of Americans don't believe in most superstitions. The following was concluded:

  • The most-believed superstition is that finding a penny brings good luck, with approximately one thirdof Americans believing this.
  • Onequarter of the respondents believe that it's bad luck for a bride to see a groom just before the wedding.
  • The least popular belief was that stepping on a crack will bring bad luck, with only 7% of respondents adhering to this belief.

However, studies have shown benefits for superstitious behavior.

Potential Benefits Of Superstitious Behavior

Most studies prove no efficacy of superstitious behavior in general. However, one study demonstrated that superstitions about one's behavior could be efficacious. Some psychological benefits have also been reported in high-levelathletes, who utilize rituals before a game. An analysis conducted in 2006revealed that athletescommit more to pre-game rituals when the game is more important and the outcome is more unsure.

Getting Help

Daily Habits Can Be Symptoms Of A Mental Health Disorder

What if what you’re going through feels like more than superstition? Behavior that is experienced as excessive, intrusive, and beyond a person's control may require professional attention. Often, therapeutic support is needed for individuals who may be living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health conditions. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform with licensed providers who can provide this assistance. With BetterHelp, you can participate in therapyfrom the comfort of your own home. Whether online or in person, you do not need a diagnosis to start seeing a therapist; so, if you are still pursuing a diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that you have to hold back from reaching out for help. No matter where you are in your journey, you deserve to establish the support you need.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.