Superstitious beliefs typically occur as a response to situations in which humans have little control over the outcome. Studies have shown that superstition can actually have a positive effect on both mental attitude and problem-solving ability.
Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski was one of the first researchers to articulate a link between superstitious behavior and uncertain circumstances. In the early 20th century, Malinowski visited the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea and observed the native islanders there. Malinowski noticed that when fishermen fished close to the shore, where fishing was easier and more consistent, they exhibited very few superstitious practices. However, when they fished further out at sea, where fishing was more dangerous and less consistent, they engaged in many more superstitious rituals. Malinowski recognized that the islanders’ increased superstition was a result of their less-controlled circumstances.
Superstitions most often occur during moments of vulnerability or uncertainty, and research indicates that superstitious beliefs can actually help individuals deal better with adverse circumstances. In one study, researchers presented participants with multiple word problems, some of which were unsolvable. After working through these difficult problems, the participants then worked on a series of anagrams, which were solvable. The study found that participants who reported engaging in superstitious behaviors actually solved more anagrams than participants who did not.