Very superstitious: From Black Cats to lucky pants, why we should all believe in magic

Very superstitious

Published on 27 October 2019

Sunday, October 27 is National Black Cat day. But why do we fear these beautiful creatures, and where do superstitions come from?

Dr Vanessa Pearson, a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, tells us why magpies, ladders and black cats are not so unlucky after all.

 

Ok, so all cats are gorgeous, but black cats are definitely something special.

Sadly, black cats are the least-adopted of all cats because people think they’re bad luck.

There have been some – unconfirmed – reports that black cats are even targeted for abuse around Halloween, due to their association with all things dark and evil.

Black cats are depicted everywhere at this time of year, they are intrinsically tied to darkness and things of a ‘spooky’ nature; people dress up as them, they’re shown with witches or ghosts, sitting on pumpkins, all because they’re associated with things of a dark and evil nature.

Historically, cats were worshipped. They were worshipped in ancient Egypt and Greece, plus their status was so elevated they pulled the Norse God Freya’s chariot.

Unfortunately, Judaism and Christianity put a stop to this pagan worship of cats, and they vilified all things that came before the concept of a ‘one true God’. So, cats were now aligned with pagan religions and perceived to be evil, inclusive of the Wiccan religion.

But black cats were even more maligned because of their colour, and were connected with the devil; they were portrayed as being bad luck. Even though society has moved forward, the image of the black cat has remained slightly tarnished and these beautiful creatures became one of the faces of superstition.

There are many types of superstition out there, but in humans most are handed down to us from others and we rarely know the source of them, they’re learned behaviours, and this is why there are so many variations on a theme when it comes to superstitions.

Take magpies, everyone has a rhyme or a statement/action attached to seeing magpies. For some it’s a greeting “Hello Mr Magpie”, for some it’s a simple salute or nodding the head, while others have a full rhyme “One for sorrow, two for joy”.

Here’s a question for you: what impact on your day, or indeed your life, is a magpie going to have? None whatsoever is the answer, not unless it decides to interact with you. Of course, there’s no connection, but with superstitions that doesn’t seem to matter, even if we know it is rubbish, we do it anyway. Nobody wants to mess with ‘luck’.

 

When we engage in superstitious behaviour it is to give ourselves a sense of control over a situation, we’re trying to control, or harness, a bit of luck to make our lives better.

Superstitions are learned behaviours displayed in times of uncertainty, with rarely any logical or rational grounds for the action being completed. It’s what we call a ritual or ‘magical thinking’.

Magical thinking is not believing in magic, although some people do, it’s more to do with ritualistic thinking, using lucky charms, in fact anything that will help us feel like we have some control over luck in a situation. This includes lucky mascots, from official sports mascots to your own personal lucky pants.

It’s really common for people to display magical thinking, because the vast majority of people don’t have a solid grasp of how chance works. We are pattern-seeking animals, and we see patterns in everything, including behaviour, so we make connections between random events wholly unrelated to each other, simply because they appear at the same time.

For example, if you wear a particular pair of pants during an exam when you did well, you’re more likely to wear them again (hopefully after washing them) the next time you sit an exam.

Ultimately superstitions, and rituals relating to superstitions, are about alleviating anxiety in relation to uncertainty, introducing an element of perceived control into situations where we feel out of our depth or anxious.

What might surprise you, is that there is some evidence that engaging with superstitious and ritualistic thinking in relation to performance actually might help performance – by lowering anxiety and ensuring we are more calm and confident in the situation.

So, keep wearing your lucky pants, by all means count magpies, but love black cats. These beautiful creatures are at the mercy of our learned responses, magical thinking, and need for control, and that’s really not their fault.”