The Problem With Superstitions

Did you know…

The superstition that it is “bad luck to walk under a ladder” most likely originated in Egypt almost 5,000 years ago? Back then, triangles were considered sacred to the gods and to walk under them was a sacrilege. In the 1600’s, prisoners on their way to the gallows were forced to walk under ladders, thus adding to the legend.

We all know plenty of superstitions that are supposed to bring us “bad luck”: cracked mirrors, black cats, and umbrellas opened indoors. But why do we behave differently when confronted with a superstition? B.F. Skinner, one of the pioneers of behavioral science, conducted research in which he was able to demonstrate superstitious behavior in pigeons. By delivering reinforcement randomly, the pigeons engaged in various behaviors that seemingly caused the food to be delivered (remember, nothing they did caused the food to come faster, it was simply delivered at random).

Do people behave like pigeons when it comes to superstitious behavior? You bet! Any time a highly positive or negative consequence occurs close in time with an independent behavior, that behavior is accidentally reinforced or punished. As humans, we seek to attribute such events to causes in our environment, and with so many possibilities around us, the potential for us to misattribute the cause and effect is vast. Do any of you have a “lucky shirt” that you wear when participating in a sport? A charm necklace you wear every time you play the lottery? A lucky binder you bring to that IEP meeting? It would be a difficult task indeed to find someone who did not have a superstition or two somewhere in their repertoire.

Most forms of superstitious behavior are harmless. We may worry for a few hours or even a day about whether a broken mirror will bring us bad luck, but it is soon forgotten. However, it can become problematic when we attribute the cause and effect to events that had nothing to do with our efforts. As a clinician, I have seen superstitions at work in the classroom and home. Parents and teachers may attribute “good days” and “bad days” to random events in the classroom, causing them to feel less empowered in their own efforts to make meaningful change. How many times have you said to yourself, “It must be a full moon!”? What about the change in schedule, the substitute teacher, running out of a favorite snack, or one of the other hundreds of variables that impact us all every day? I can’t do much about the phases of the moon, but I know for sure I can do something to mitigate the other factors. Superstitions are fun, but they are not very helpful for making change.

The remedy for superstitious behavior that gets in the way of empowered parenting and teaching is to understand how the environment impacts behavior. The core of what behavior analysts seek to understand is “Why did that happen?” in a way that can be proven with data, so we are not victims of these closely timed missteps we call superstitions. A well-conducted functional behavioral assessment will likely give you more information about why your child behaves a certain way than a lucky guess based on a singular event.

So, avoid opening the umbrella in the house if you like, stay away from that black cat if you must, but step back and realize that the universe makes more sense than that. And realize that whether the results are good or bad, we have the power to choose, change, and control our environment.  It’s not as easy as wearing a lucky shirt, but it sure is rewarding to know you made the difference.


Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition in the pigeon.  Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

Wolchover, N. (2011). The Surprising origin of 9 common superstitions. Retrieved from


Donna Thiele