How exercise can benefit your mental health
Do you find yourself saluting magpies, avoiding black cats, touching wood or holding your collar when an ambulance passes – without really knowing why?
If so, you’re in good company: 21% of the 2,645 Saga customers who answered our survey said they were a little superstitious. And, as we enter the spookiest month, a further 38% admitted they acted on classic superstitions even though they didn’t believe in them.
The most widely observed “good luck” superstition is crossing your fingers (62% do this), followed by making a wish when blowing out birthday candles (49%), knocking on wood (46%), picking up a penny (28%) and saluting magpies (26%). As for sidestepping bad luck, 55% avoid walking under ladders, although that may have more to do with plain old common sense. More than a third throw salt over their shoulder after spilling it (37%), 32% never open an umbrella indoors and 31% don’t put new shoes on the table.
Experts say we become less superstitious as we get older, and this is reflected in our survey: our 50-64s were the most superstitious (26%), falling to 18% of the 75-84 age group and 15% of the over-85s. A recent YouGov survey of the population at large found 34% were superstitious – with 18-24s the biggest believers.
Women are generally more superstitious than men, which was echoed in our survey: 27% of female customers, compared to 17% of men. And women are more likely to follow a superstition even if they don’t believe (42% vs 33%).
But why do so many of us insist on saluting magpies even if we don’t think the bird is going to bring us sorrow? Habit, says psychologist Dr Ken Drinkwater, at Manchester Metropolitan University, who researches belief in superstitions and the paranormal. He also salutes magpies and has lucky socks (do they work? “Er, no”).
“I know it’s ridiculous to salute magpies – my mum used to say you have to spit at the same time,” he says. “But it’s become a habit now – if you associate something with being positive you keep doing it because it does no harm.”
He says research has found that having superstitions can be positive, as they give you a feeling of control over things that appear uncontrollable, and reduce anxiety. And if your superstition – like his lucky socks or tennis player Rafa Nadal’s water bottle routine – gives you a positive mental mindset, then you may even perform better.
It’s no coincidence then that superstitious behaviours increase during uncertain times.
“In Germany between 1918 and 1940, measures of economic threat correlated directly with measures of superstition,” says Dr Drinkwater. “I’d imagine there would have also been an increase in superstitions during the Covid pandemic. It makes us think we have more control over the uncontrollable.”
That’s probably why superstitions are more common among people who have traditionally had less agency over their lives: women, and those in dangerous jobs like sailors and soldiers, says Sally Coulthard, author of Superstition: White Rabbits and Black Cats – The History of Common Folk Beliefs (Quadrille, £12.99). They’re also more prevalent among those prone to anxious thoughts and “control freaks”, she says. We found that in our survey: 27% who said they tended to worry about things were superstitious, compared to 12% of non-worriers.
“I find myself doing superstitious things, yet I consider myself someone who’s well educated, and I am an atheist, though I’d describe myself as a control freak,” says Coulthard. “Somehow I feel I am giving myself a bit of extra protection.”
Why do we persist even if rationally we know no one will die if we put a pair of new shoes on the table? “Essentially, it’s fear that if we don’t carry on we will invite trouble,” adds Coulthard. “It’s probably why I’m constantly touching wood.”
Taken from The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland by Steve Roud
Written by Rachel Carlyle