Superstition – Controlling the uncontrollable

Superstition – Controlling the uncontrollable

My mother-in-law thought the colour green was very bad luck. She held that belief so firmly that she once demanded to be off-loaded from an international flight when she discovered, on boarding,  that all the seats were upholstered in green. It wasn’t her only superstitious belief, or for that matter the only “unusual” thing she ever did.

We can all be a bit superstitious

Many of us have superstitious beliefs. They are entirely unscientific and irrational, but they persist. Most of the time we can’t identify where the ideas came from. Most of the time, unlike my mother-in-law, we don’t allow them to determine our behaviour.

Sure, some superstitious beliefs are cultural and widespread – black cats, the number 13 and walking under ladders are all good examples from western culture and I’m sure there are many other examples from other cultures that you may be familiar with. About 10-20% of westerners will admit to having some personal superstitions.

Why do we adopt these beliefs?

Whilst many superstitions probably had a rational basis when they began (the ladder might fall, you might trip over the cat in the dark) they seem to persist as a way of controlling the uncontrollable.  In circumstances where the outcome is certain there is no need for ritual and superstition but when the outcomes are uncertain and especially when they are important, we humans seem to need something to provide an illusion of control.

I understand that many sports people are very superstitious. They often have rituals before a game, lucky garments or special equipment. The same applies to entertainers.

Increasingly the evidence suggests that these sorts of rituals do reduce anxiety and improve performance.

Can superstitions be dangerous?

There’s not much of an issue with needing to have your lucky charm until you forget it one day and the panic sets in. That’s not such a good thing for your performance if you truly believe in your charm’s powers. And what if your lucky charm also makes you believe in it so much that you keep on gambling until there’s nothing left to gamble with?

Traits of superstitious people:

Superstitious people tend to come from superstitious families and cultures. There are also some other weak associations with high trait anxiety, high fear of death and having an external locus of control.

Whatever, being superstitious, however much it may look like it, is not the same thing as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is a debilitating anxiety disorder. It generally begins in early adult life (late teens to late thirties) and affects 3% of Australians at some time in their lives. Children can also be affected. It runs in families so may be genetic in origin and can also be triggered by life stressors.

People with OCD experience intrusive and unwanted thoughts (that’s the “obsession” part). They are driven to behave in ways that they believe will rid them of those disturbing thoughts. They know what they are doing makes no sense (ie they are not lacking in insight) but they are so fearful of the consequences of not doing those things they cannot stop themselves. It is an intensely uncomfortable condition and some of the behaviours people are forced to adopt can be extreme and life altering.

As you can tell, this is not just someone who is superstitious.

OCD is very treatable. The gold standard therapy is “exposure and response prevention” where people are exposed to the things they fear in controlled circumstances and learn to sit with the anxiety until it extinguishes itself rather than “doing something” to suppress it.

Online treatment options for OCD

There are a number of great evidence-based Australian-made online resources to support the treatment of people suffering from OCD. These include excellent information websites and even OCD specific treatment programs from THISWAYUP, Mindspot and Mental Health Online. Whilst these courses are not likely to “cure” OCD without face-to-f ace therapy as well they will certainly go a long way towards helping people understand their symptoms and the reasons for their treatment.

I clearly remember one of my patients describing the enormous sense of relief she felt once she had overcome the tyranny of her checking behaviour. Knowing she did not have to get up 2 hours earlier every morning to give herself time to check all the locks and power points multiple times before she left for work was a liberation.

So what about my mother-in-law?

Did my mother-in-law have OCD? – I don’t think so because she actually saw nothing wrong with her behaviour. Was she just eccentric? A variant of normal? I guess it depends who you ask.

Some family members did think she tended to take things “a little too far”. But then again, they were all pretty wary of anything green themselves!