Why magical thinking is so widespread – a look at the psychological roots of common superstitions

Growing up in Greece, I spent my summers at my grandparents’ home in a small coastal village in the region of Chalkidiki. It was warm and sunny, and I passed most of my time playing in the streets with my cousins. But occasionally, the summer storms brought torrential rain. You could see them coming from far away, with black clouds looming over the horizon, lit up by lightning.

As I rushed home, I was intrigued to see my grandparents prepare for the thunderstorm. Grandma would cover a large mirror on the living room wall with a dark cloth and throw a blanket over the TV. Meanwhile, Grandpa would climb a ladder to remove the light bulb over the patio door. Then they switched off all the lights in the house and waited the storm out.

I never understood why they did all this. When I asked, they said that light attracts lightning. At least that was what people said, so better to be on the safe side.

Where do these kinds of beliefs come from?

My fascination with seemingly bizarre cultural beliefs and practices eventually led me to become an anthropologist. I have come across similar superstitions around the world, and although one may marvel at their variety, they share some common features.

The principles of magical thinking

At the core of most superstitions are certain intuitive notions about how the world works. Early anthropologists described these intuitions in terms of principles such as “similarity” and “contagion.”

According to the principle of similarity, things that look alike may share some deeper connection, just as the members of a family tend to resemble each other both in appearance and in other traits. Of course, this is not always the case. But this inference feels natural, so we often abuse it.