Having grown up in Greece, I always spent the summer season at my grandparents' house in a small coastal village in the region of Halkidiki. The weather was hot, sunny and I spent most of my time playing in the street with my cousins. But occasionally, summer storms brought heavy downpours.
They could be seen coming from afar, with black clouds looming over the horizon, lit by lightning. As I ran home, I was always impressed by how my grandparents prepared for the storm.
Grandma would quickly cover the large mirror on the living room wall with a dark cloth and throw a blanket over the TV. Meanwhile, the grandfather climbed the stairs to remove the lamp that was above the patio door. Then they turned off all the lights in the house. I never understood why they did all those things.
When I asked them, they told me that electricity attracts lightning. At least that's what people were saying, so you better be safe. But where do these kinds of beliefs come from? My fascination with seemingly strange cultural beliefs and practices led me to become an anthropologist.
I have observed similar superstitions around the world, and although one may marvel at their variety, they share some common features. At the core of most superstitions are some intuitive concepts about how the world works.
Early anthropologists described them with terms like "similarity" and "infectivity". According to the principle of similarity, things that look alike may share a deeper connection, just as members of a family tend to resemble each other in both appearance and other traits. Of course, this is not always the case. But this conclusion seems natural, so we often abuse it. In the case in question: The light reflected on the surface of a mirror is not related to the light that originates from the electrical discharges produced during a storm.
But because both seem to emit light, a connection between the two was once highly believed in many parts of the world. Likewise, because our reflection in a mirror closely resembles our own image, many cultures believe that breaking a mirror brings bad luck, because it was believed that harming that reflection would also mean harming ourselves.
The principle of infectivity is based on the idea that things have intrinsic properties, and they can be transmitted through contact. Thus the heat of fire is transmitted to everything it touches, and some diseases can spread from one organism to another. Consciously or unconsciously, people in all cultures often expect that other kinds of things can be transferred through contact.
For example, this is why players in a casino sometimes touch someone who is lucky, to get a little "infected" by their luck. That's why in 2014, a statue of Juliet, the Shakespearean character who fell madly in love with Romeo, was replaced due to excessive wear caused by visitors touching it to find love.
But these kinds of superstitions betray something more general about the way people think. To understand our world, we look for patterns in nature. When two things happen at the same time, they can be related. For example, black clouds are associated with torrential rain.
But the world is very complex. So most of the time, a correlation does not imply a cause, even though it may be perceived that way. If you wear a new shirt in the stadium and your team wins, you can wear it again next time. If another heart team win happens, you start to see a pattern.
At that point, it becomes your lucky shirt. In reality, a lot of other things have changed since the last game. But you don't have access to all those things. What you know for sure is that you have worn the lucky shirt, and the outcome has been favorable.
People want their lucky objects to work. And when this does not happen, we are less motivated to remember them, or we may attribute our luck to some other factor. If our team loses, we can blame the referee.
But when our team wins, we're more likely to call the t-shirt we're wearing lucky, and we're more likely to tell others it worked, and that helps spread the word. As a social species, much of what we know about the world comes from shared wisdom.
It is therefore safe to assume that if other people believe in the usefulness of a particular action, there may be something to it. If people around you say you shouldn't eat those mushrooms, it's probably a good idea to avoid them.
The "better safe than sorry" strategy is one of the main reasons why superstitions are so widespread. Another reason is that they make us feel good. Studies show that rituals and superstitions increase during periods of uncertainty, and performing them can help reduce anxiety and increase performance.
When people feel powerless, falling back on familiar gestures provides us with a sense of control over the situation, which, if illusory, can be comforting. Thanks to these psychological effects, superstitions have existed for centuries, and are likely to exist for centuries to come.
*Dimitris Xygalatas, is an associate professor of Anthropology and Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut, USA. / The Conversation