Effect of Superstition on the Perception of Control

05 Apr 2018

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The Effect of Superstition on the Perception of Control over a Partially Uncontrollable Situation

The effects of superstition on the an individual's behaviour has long been an area of interest in psychological research. Matute (1994, 1995) showed that an individuals response to uncontrollable circumstances is dictated by their level of superstition. Individuals with low levels of superstitious belief tend to show a decrease in cognitive capacity & motivation, known as 'learned helplessness' (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978; Hiroto & Seligman, 1975). Whilst individuals with high levels of superstitious belief, on the other hand, do not appear to develop this learned helpless, and it has been hypothesised superstitions provide an individual with an illusion of control (Matute 1994, 1995). Likewise, Dudley (1999) suggested that superstitious beliefs inhibit the learned helplessness effect by provided participants with an external locus of control.

Conversely, it has been suggested that there may be other factors which inhibit the learned helplessness effect, such as attribution style (Abramson et at., 1978). Seligman (as cited in Rudski, 2004), conducted an experiment which showed that individual who formed particularly pessimistic attributions were susceptible to learned helplessness, in addition to depression.

Furthermore, many studies which investigate superstitious belief & the illusion of control do so by utilising judgements of contingency from the participant. Contingency judgements are useful as they help to explain how the illusion of control develops in participants (Yarritu, Matute, Vadillo, 2013). Blanco, Matute & Vadillo (2011) showed that a participants contingency judgement is dependant on their level of action. It has been suggested, that the this combination with this level of action effect, and the high probability of a specific outcome, even when that outcome is uncontrollable, is what caused the participant to develop the illusion of control (Yarritu et at., 2013).

This study aims to build on pre-existing research by investigating whether an individuals perception of control over a partially uncontrollable situation is impacted by their level of superstitious belief. To do this, participants were asked to perform a contingency judgement task, the results of which were then compared in relation to their level of superstition. It is hypothesised, firstly, that individuals with higher levels of superstition will report having higher levels of control in the 'active' condition, when compared to individuals with low superstition and secondly, that this effect will be less apparent in the 'passive' condition.



The participants were 996 undergraduate psychology students from the University of New South Wales (mean age = 19.8 years; 644 females: 352 males). They participated in this experiment as part of their week 5 tutorial class.


This study took the form of a quasi-experiment, as it assessed the participants perception of control over a partially controllable situation, in relation to their level of superstition. As such, the independent variable, high or low superstition, was determined by the Superstitious Beliefs Questionnaires (SBQ). Participants were divided into the 'high superstition' and 'low superstition' groups based on a median split of the SBQ score. Based on the responses given, 492 participants (mean age = 19.7 years; 320 females: 172 males) were allocated to the 'high superstition' group, whilst the remaining 504 participants (mean age = 19.9 years; 324 females: 180 males) formed the 'low superstition' group. This experiment then tested two conditions, dubbed the 'active' and the 'passive' condition. The dependent variable, that is, the participants perception of control, was then measured, by self-report.


The experiment was carried out on standard computer terminals in one of the university's computer labs. Inquisit software (Millisecond Software, Seattle) was used to present the experimental stimuli.

In the 'active' condition, participants were presented with a light bulb graphic & button. Participants could choose whether or not to press the button, and the light bulb would either light up, or remain off as a result of their decision. As a result, there were four categories of trial: press with light, press without light, no-press with light and no-press without light. After 10 trials participants were asked to rate how much control they felt they had over the light bulb.

In the 'passive' condition, participants were only presented with a light bulb graphic, and informed that they would observe an imaginary friend, 'Bob', perform the task. As in the 'active' condition, there were four categories of trial, and after 10 trials, participants were asked to rate the level of control they perceived Bob had over the light bulb.

Participants completed the Superstitious Beliefs Questionnaire (SBQ), a demographic survey, and were asked if they were aware of the experiments design. The SBQ is a 26 item scale, designed to measure the level of superstitious belief in an individual. Each item of the SBQ can be scored from 0 up to 4, making a maximum score of 104 points possible. Participants who scored less than or equal to 46 on the SBQ were placed in the 'low superstition' group, whilst those who scored above 46 were placed in the high superstition group.


The participants were asked to complete a contingency judgement task, in two conditions. Each condition consisted of four sets of 10 trials. In the 'active' condition, participants were instructed to choose between pressing or not pressing a button on the screen. This action or inaction then lead to a light bulb on the screen being illuminated. After 10 trials of this, participants were asked to rate how much control they had over the light bulb, using a sliding scale displayed on the screen. In the 'passive' condition, participants were informed that they would observe an imaginary friend performing the task. The participants were able to observe the outcome (whether the light turned on or remained off) and were informed of the imaginary friend action (pressing or not pressing the button). Participants were again asked to rate how much control the imaginary friend had over the light bulb.


Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74.

Blanco, F., Matute, H., & Vadillo, M. A. (2011). Making the uncontrollable seem controllable: The role of action in the illusion of control. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64(7), 1290–1304.

Dudley, R. (1999). The effect of superstitious belief on performance following an unsolvable problem. Personality and Individual Differences, 26(6), 1057–1064

Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 311-327.

Matute, H. (1994). Learned helplessness and superstitious behavior as opposite effects of uncontrollable reinforcement in humans. Learning and Motivation, 25(2), 216-232.

Matute, H. (1995). Human reactions to uncontrollable outcomes: Further evidence for superstitions rather than helplessness. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 48B, 142–157.

Rudski, J. (2004). The illusion of control, superstitious belief, and optimism. Current Psychology, 22(4), 306-315.

Yarritu, I. Matute, H. Vadillo, M.A. (2013). Illusion of control: The role of personal involvement. Experimental Psychology, 61(1), 38–47.



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