Superstitions are long-held beliefs that appear to be rooted in coincidence or cultural tradition rather than logic or facts.
Superstitions are often connected to pagan beliefs or religious practices that were widespread in the past.
Our ancestors didn’t come up with superstitions because they were more ignorant or naive than we are, but because they lacked many concrete ways to influence the survival outcomes of their lives. Superstitions offered a way to feel more in control, the same way they do now. That’s why highly educated, sophisticated people still believe in certain superstitions.
Most superstitions are fun and harmless, whether you sincerely believe in them or not. But some superstitions can play into mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Here’s what common superstitions mean and when to be concerned about superstitious behaviors.
Let’s take a look at common superstitions, their origins, and what they mean to us today.
At some point, black cats became associated with evil forces and shape-shifting witches. In German tradition it’s believed that a black cat crossing your path from left to right is a sign of bad news and death in the near future.
Interestingly, some cultures believe that black cats are a sign of good luck.
Walking under a ladder
When ladders are in use, they create a triangle shape. Cultures such as the ancient Egyptians found triangles to be sacred, and walking under a ladder disrupts the perfect triangle shape.
Walking under ladders is seen to be an act of defiance and an invitation to bad luck.
Breaking a mirror
Looking at your own reflection wasn’t just a way to check yourself out — in ancient cultures, consulting a mirror was a way to consult the future. Looking into a broken mirror would result in a distorted reflection, which would indicate tragedy or bad luck ahead.
In some religious traditions, “12” is regarded as the perfect number. The number that comes after 12 would be regarded as imperfect or defiled.
In early Christian and Nordic traditions, the 13th guest at a table is the one who will bring the whole group down. There’s even a word for fear of the number thirteen, called triskaidekaphobia.
It’s not clear why four-leaf clovers came to mean good luck. Presumably, a four-leaf clover would be an anomaly found in a patch of three-leaf clover, and finding one is a rare occurrence.
The four leaves of the four-leaf clover are meant to symbolize faith, hope, love, and luck.
Crows are scavenger birds and many believe they can sense death before it happens. For this reason, some people believe seeing a lone crow means calamity is eminent.
Knocking on wood
Making a statement like “this will be a good year” was seen to be arrogant and an invitation to meddlesome spirits intent on disrupting your plans.
After making a statement to indicate that you predict good things ahead, it became customary to “knock on wood” of walls or furniture around you as a way to drive off these evil spirits.
Seeing the bride the night before the wedding
To this day, many soon-to-be spouses avoid seeing each other the night before the wedding.
This tradition may date back to arranged marriages, where spouses would encounter each other for the first time moments before speaking their vows. Keeping the bride and groom apart even right before the wedding was believed to keep both parties from backing out.
Something old, something new
This superstition is more about tradition than it is about luck. Wearing “something old and something new” on your wedding day was a way of honoring the bride’s heritage and carrying the past into the future.
“Something borrowed” invited the bride’s community into her new relationship, and “something blue” was meant to represent love, purity, and fidelity.
Catching the bouquet
During and after the wedding ceremony, women who wanted to get married were desperate to find a way for the new bride’s luck to rub off on them. Marriage was, after all, the only institutional protection women were seen to have access to after a certain age.
Single women would try to take pieces of fabric or petals off the bride’s attire, and often she would turn, throw the bouquet, and flee. The bouquet was seen as a lucky object to the person who could catch it.
The daisy oracle
The old trope of counting off a daisy’s petals to determine if “he loves me, he loves me not” is sometimes called “to pluck the daisy” or “the daisy oracle” originating from a French game.
In the game, the player plucks the petals off a daisy one at a time, alternating “he loves me” or “he loves me not.” When the last petal is pulled, the phrase the player lands on is the answer to the question.
Don’t sit in the corner
Particularly in Russian traditions, single women are encouraged not to sit at the corner during a dinner party. Sitting in the corner, the superstition goes, will “doom” that woman to a life of eternal spinsterhood.
This superstition might just be a matter of practicality, as sitting in the middle of a lively dinner party is a much better way to meet people than sitting at the corner or the end.
Salt has long been thought to carry a spiritual energy. Salt, which used to be extremely hard to procure and the only way to safely preserve meat, was so valuable it could be used as a currency.
Spilling salt was seen to be so irresponsible, it was an invitation to catastrophe. Throwing salt over your left shoulder, however, was thought to undo the bad luck of spilling it and restore the balance of things.
Saying “God bless you”
Saying “God bless you” after a person sneezes started before people understood how diseases were transmitted.
Since many people in the Middle Ages were killed by plague, the practice of saying “God bless you” was meant to protect a person who was showing symptoms, like coughing and sneezing.
The blessing may have also been an attempt to keep evil spirits from entering the body after the sneeze, which some believed contained a person’s essence trying to escape.
Old broom in a new home
Bringing an old broom into a new home was thought to transfer bad energy from one place to the next. Similarly, it was considered bad luck to use a broom that was left behind by a home’s previous occupant.
Using a new broom upon moving to a new place was meant to be a cleansing act that purified the residence.
Boil milk and rice
In some cultures, boiling milk and rice is a way to christen a new home. Milk and rice symbolize fullness, prosperity, and wealth being welcomed into the new space.
Superstitions have two main causes: cultural tradition and individual experiences.
If you grew up steeped in the superstitions of a particular culture or religion, you may carry these beliefs forward, even subconsciously.
Superstitions can take the form of sitting in a “lucky” chair when your favorite team is facing their rival, or performing the same series of taps on the plate when it’s your turn up at bat in baseball.
These behaviors are simply ways to soothe anxiety or prepare your brain to concentrate. They’re more like habits that give the person doing them a feeling of control over the unknown.
For example, if you wore your favorite player’s jersey to a football game, and that player scored a touchdown, you may believe that the two circumstances were connected — that one choice (wearing the jersey) caused your desired outcome (the touchdown). You probably know that the two things aren’t linked, but holding on to the belief feels better than letting it go.
According to the American Psychological Association, many people know that their superstitious rituals or beliefs are disconnected from reality. But that doesn’t mean that they’re ready to let go of the belief.
One study in 2016 strongly suggests that superstitions are powerful intuitions that our brains don’t want to correct. While the logical part of us may know that our superstitious behaviors don’t affect outcomes, holding on to them is still a way of “playing it safe.”
For most people, superstitions are harmless. But there are times when superstitions can become an obstacle in your everyday life.
For people with OCD, superstitions can manifest as fixations. People with OCD may feel unable to be dismissive of superstitious behaviors or beliefs. This can trigger obsessive thoughts or anxiety, among other OCD symptoms. This is sometimes referred to as “magical thinking” OCD.
People who have other mental health conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder, can also be negatively impacted by superstitions.
When superstitions become a strong motivator for participating in or avoiding certain activities, it’s an indication that an underlying mental health condition may be present.
When to seek help
If you feel that you’re being controlled or afraid of your superstitions, you’re not alone. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, fear, and avoidance behavior are all signs you may need help. You can contact a mental health professional or seek counsel from the hotline numbers listed below.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Hotline: 800-950-NAMI (open M-F, 10am–6pm EST)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (open 24/7, 365 days a year)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Helpline: 800-662-HELP
If superstitions have become an obstacle for you, you’ll be referred to a mental health specialist who can help. Treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and habit reversal training.
For some people, medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta-blockers, or rarely, sedatives may be prescribed to help relieve anxiety. Since sedatives can sometimes lead to misuse or dependence, they’re not typically a first-line treatment.
In most cases, superstitions are harmless. In fact, it’s possible that you hold superstitions that you’re so used to that you aren’t even aware of them and they don’t impact your life much.
There are instances where so-called “magical thinking” can create a chasm between imagination and reality. In those cases, treatment from a mental health professional may help.