Defining superstition: Penguin Dictionary of Psychology

Posted on June 10, 2007


As I, and numerous others, have already previously observed, it is notoriously difficult to define superstition. Therefore, I pity dictionary writers, who are meant to provide an informative, but brief, definition of this slippery concept. Here is how the Dictionary of Psychology edited by Arthur Reber and published by Penguin (2nd ed.) tries to deal with this task:


superstition – Any notion or belief held in the absence of what one not holding that notion or belief would consider to be adequate evidence to substantiate or support it sufficiently to maintain such belief. Many superstitions have their roots in one or other theological system or religious tradition (indeed, some authors restrict the word to such cases), others exist uncritically as unexamined beliefs. Beliefs about the left side of the body (see sinister) are examples of the former, the common practice of carrying ‘good luck’ charms of the latter. Some authorities treat superstitions as descendants of primitive attempts to understand the inexplicable, to make sense out of a complex and confusing world; others, notably behaviourists, see them as natural consequences of a failure to recognize the existence (or lack of existence) of cause-and-effect relationships between one’s own behavior and subsequent occurrences in the world about us. For a case of this latter point of view, see superstitious behavior.

The first thing to notice is that the dictionary divides off superstitious beliefs and practices, only covering the beliefs in this definition and dealing with supserstitious practices in another definition. The reason is to some degree historical being linked to Skinner’s study of ‘superstitious’ behaviour in pigeons. Leaving that aside, the basic definition is clearly far too broad to be very useful. What the dictionary writers are really talking about are unjustified beliefs, which includes such nonsuperstitious examples as the the fact that way more than fifty percent of drivers believe themselves to be better than average. In addition, it is not obvious that the introduction of a third person ‘judge’ does not further complicate matter rather than clarifying them. Clearly, the first sentence is not adequate in which the further sentences must not be understood as merely adding information but as actually sharpening up the definition. This means that definition becomes, roughly: superstitions are either unjustified beliefs derived from some religion or unjustified beliefs which persist due to not having been examined critically. Unfortunately, this does not really help the matter, only adding further vagueness. Firstly, it is hard to know what is meant by beliefs rooted in religious tradition unless one is to understand by this religious beliefs in general. Given that the ‘evidence’ for religious beliefs is fairly much the same for everyone and that people who have differing religious views standardly consider those of others unjustified, this would render all religious beliefs superstitions. While this may turn out to be the case, it seems hardly right to define superstition in such a way as to render the judgement automatic. The second part of the extended definition turns out to be no better for the reason that many superstitious beliefs persist even when closely examined by their holders, even when not based on any religious tradition. Thus, astrologers persist in their belief in astrology even though they engage in extensive astrological work that has many of the trappings of scientific research – certainly investigating their beliefs to a much greater degree than the average person investigates their belief that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than the other way.

Still, given the previously noted difficulties with defining superstition, we should focus on what is useful in the definition rather than with its limitations, even if in the present case they are such that we only know what the definition is attempting to define because we have an intuitive grasp of what superstitions are. The most useful elements, in this case, really come in the second half of the entry in which two theories as to the source of superstition are mentioned. The first of these is that superstition the descendant of prescientific attempts to understand the world. While I would agree with this basic idea it still seems far too broad. After all, science is also a descendant of such prescientific efforts! The difficult element is to differentiate superstitious beliefs from other kinds of beliefs. This leaves the second theory as to the cause of superstition – the view that superstitions find their source in the misidentification of the causal connections between our actions and the world around us. And, once again, while being partly attractive, the theory is too general given that we all have problems identifying when we cause an event but most such difficulties do not lead to what might be termed superstition. What is more interesting is the observation that the ‘misindentified cause’ account is linked to behaviourism.

All in all, it is a pity that the definition is as weak as it is given that the dictionary is actually an interesting and often entertaining read – hard though it may be to believe. Certainly, my wife did question my mental well-being last night when I began to chuckle over the very dry humour in a few of the entries.