I'm willing to bet we're all familiar with a superstition or two, but have you ever wondered why people believe in superstitions to begin with? Though belief in superstitions is generally associated with a non-belief in science, there are actual science-backed reasons people abide by superstitious beliefs. Given that today is Leap Day, which occurs once every four years on Feb. 29, you may be extra likely to run into someone living out a superstition or two today.
Leap Day, of all holidays, is associated with fun traditions and superstitions: In Ireland, it's known as the one day women can propose to men (though I say, out with the gender norms! People should propose to one another whenever they'd like), while in southern Germany, young men are known to put small May trees in the backyards of their love interests. Leap years are also associated with some not so fun superstitions: In Italy, tradition advises couples to avoid getting married during leap years, and in Scotland, farmers are told to prepare for poor livestock season.
So, where does this leave us? Why do people follow these superstitions? How do they get passed on from generation to generation? It seems that psychology has more to do with it than you might assume. Of course, everyone has different belief systems and rationalizations, but here are four science-based reasons many people abide by superstitions:
1. We Love Rituals
People love rituals. Seriously — research shows that people love routines. Basically, people crave structure and security, and ritualistic behavior and beliefs fit right into that. The day of your team's big game? Of course you'll wear the same socks you always wear when you want the big win. Experts suggest that the more special we think an event is — that is, the rarer we think an event is, or the more significance it holds in our personal lives — the more likely we are to enjoy rituals associated with the event going well or being satisfying. In a sense, rituals give us something to look forward to, in addition to the event or holiday we're already excited about: They give us an opportunity to participate in something, even if it's in a small way that not everyone notices.
2. We Crave Control
In addition to loving rituals, people crave control. Torrential downpour setting a gloomy scene for your interview? Sure, you can't control the weather, but you certainly aren't going to open your umbrella inside and jinx yourself even more. In this logic, you acknowledge that while you can't control everything, you can control something, and that thought gives you some comfort. When life gets crazy or stressful, it can be comforting to rely on rituals and routines to guide us through because they give us a sense of control, even if it's temporary or inconsequential to the rest of our day.
3. We Enjoy Solidarity
What's a better feeling than being part of a group? If everyone in your family or community follows a superstitious tradition, it can feel like sacrilege to not at least pretend to go along with it. I think this is a big reason superstitions are passed down from one generation to the next: It's not because people really believe whales only give birth during leap years, but because it's a funny story your parents told you when you were a child, and you want to pass on that humorous memory to the children in your own life.
4. We're A Little Anxious
Psychologists say that when our anxiety goes up, our performance goes down. This makes sense: When your body and mind are anxious, they probably aren't going to be as alert, receptive, and focused as when they're not. Unfortunately, this can spell disaster if your anxiety is tied to an event like a big game or exam where time is of the essence or you only get one opportunity. Here, superstitions can do a lot of work to curb anxiety, mostly by giving you something to focus on related to the big event without stressing you out about the big event itself. Plus, going back to the above points, following superstitions can provide you with a sense of comfort and community: It's like following grandma's advice to try your best and maintain a positive attitude, except you're not allowed to walk beneath any ladders and you need to remember your lucky underwear.
In short, traditions aren't truly based in science or fact, but that doesn't mean people who follow them are ignorant or ridiculous. In fact, there's a lot of psychology out there which explains why people love superstitions and why they've become so ingrained in our culture over the years. Even if you aren't a huge believer in superstitions, it never hurts to do a little research on them, especially on a day that only comes once every four years. What could be luckier than that?