Walking under a ladder: Superstition and ritual as a cognitive bias in management decision making

As we go about our lives, we are unconsciously immersed within the cultural fabric of the society we live in. To a certain degree what we think and do is greatly influenced by the values, beliefs, and meanings adopted by that society. Embedded within our belief systems are a wide range of customs, rituals, taboos, and behavioral codes that have basis upon superstition.

Superstition conceals hidden motives at a social level that cover society’s hidden traumas. In the Freudian sense, superstition could be considered a social defense mechanism, as a means to deal with fears and anxieties that society faces. For example in hunter-gather times women were forbidden from leaving their homes when their men went hunting in order for the man to concentrate on the job at hand without worrying about the women left behind1.

Superstitions are based on flawed causalities where rationality and reasoning has been abandoned. Superstition can be seen as extended metaphors, transmitted through stories that people tell, in attempt to cover up irrationality. These stories emerge as timeless myths that become culturally patterned remedies for something that is not understood and has its basis upon events and history, a universal acumen of culture2.

Many superstitions derive basis in ancient science and remain as remnants such as the evolution of astrology3. Superstition becomes a tool to deal with what we cannot deal with or what we don’t know how to deal with, and as a’perceived means’ to achieve outcomes we desire. Consequently, superstitions have no basis in today’s science but still appeal as a remedy to cope with some fear, anxiety, hope, or aspiration4.

As such superstitions become symbolically real as a solution to a social problem. And through reinforced repeated behavior, symbolic reality turns into objective reality, where objects, people, and situations attract new meanings. The nature of the object itself manifests a superstition, hence the built up mythology around ladders and broken mirrors, etc. Thus superstition infers a belief in some form of esoterically, magical, or supernatural causality where one event is the cause of another event without any necessary rational or physical process linking the two events5. Thus the realm of superstition encompasses specific socialized behaviors, belief in luck, prophecies, spiritual beings, and that future events can be foretold by unrelated rituals and ceremonies6.

Superstition is an anchor to the past, transmitted through our collective consciousness by culture. History, education, film, media and religion all contribute to both maintaining and modifying a national narrative passed along from generation to generation.

New superstitions continually evolve in our national narratives to handle what we fear through the manifestation of new beliefs. For example the belief in a weapon system that will destroy asteroids on a collision course with the earth could be construed as a recently evolved superstition. There is no scientific validity to this belief, but the idea portrayed through films Like¬†“Meteor”, “Deep Impact”,¬†and¬†“Armageddon”¬†and the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative known commonly as¬†“Star wars”¬†during the 1980s led to the belief that the technology exists.

More controversially the saga of 9/11 can be looked at from the paradigm of myth and superstition. Fear was generated by this tragic event, and the trauma and fear was added by the 7/7 attacks in London, the railway bombing in Spain, and Taj Mahal hotel attack in Mumbai, India, reinforcing recurring messages to society sent through the media. This occurred until rationality disappeared and a mythical enemy arose that must be fought. Thus society both intellectually and emotionally invested in the superstition of an¬†“organized enemy”¬†willing to stop at nothing to take away the life that society currently knows and enjoys, and to accept a¬†“hero”¬†to fight this evil. And with any struggle, sacrifices are needed. Thus according to Martin Day in his book¬†The Many Meanings of Myth,¬†the subsequent actions reduced feelings of chaos and uncertainty, and brought a new sense of unity to society7. This allowed governments an almost unhindered ability to take what measures they wanted to in order to fight this¬†“evil enemy”.

From the decision making aspect, superstition skews thinking into archetypal patterning that is reinforced by a generally accepted cultural beliefs. This is manifested by myths, stories, taboos, ceremonies, and rituals such as wearing“something oil, something borrowed, and something blue”¬†at a wedding ceremony, or¬†‚Äôtouching wood‚Äô¬†in the hope of a particular outcome. With society following these rituals and other practices, fallacy is embedded into our cognitive processes, influencing our daily and strategic decision making.

Superstition creates behavioral boundaries through taboos which remain unquestioned and something we unconsciously learn. This is what can be called superstition bias.

Superstition is universal

Although superstition is an important aspect of culture, the positivist culture theorists Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede didn’t discuss the subject at any length or provide any methodology to measure it. In depth analysis of the meaning of superstition in society had been left to anthropologists and ethnographers like Clifford Geertz and Margaret Mead, and psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Superstition has also only being scantly covered in organizational literature, and never mentioned in management literature, leaving a very limited research base concerning the impact of superstition on beliefs and decision making in organization and management8.

Nevertheless, superstition is universal around the world which can be seen through a sampling of examples below;

  • In Japan and some parts of China the word “four” is pronounced¬†shi¬†the same as the word for death. Consequently just like number “13” in the west, the “4th”, “14th”, and “24th” floor, etc, are skipped in some buildings. Gifts consisting of “four” pieces are avoided probably with the fear that this could be an unlucky omen.¬†The number “8” is considered lucky because it‚Äôs pronunciation is similar to the word prosperity, therefore car number plates with “8” and multiples of “8” are highly desired for good luck.¬†Consequently, many consumers are willing to buy products at a premium because of lucky colors and 8 rather than 10 units in the packet because of superstition9.
  • In India and across Asia¬†it is unlucky to get a haircut on Tuesdays.¬†There are numerous taboos about what activities, such as moving into new premises can be done on what days.
  • Throughout the Asian region fortune tellers and astrologers are commonly sort out for advice before making big decisions.
  • Fengshui“, a Chinese system of heavenly geometry is commonly used in deciding building aspects and layouts¬†where practitioners play the role of a¬†legitimizer¬†and comforter in strategic decision making10.
  • Iranian¬†politics appears to be influenced by¬†“divine supernatural experiences”¬†which lead to the belief that policies and actions are¬†divinely sanctioned”11.
  • It was reported that Pakistan‚Äôs President¬†Asif¬†Ali¬†Zardari¬†has been slaughtering a black goat every-day since becoming president in an attempt to ward off¬†“the evil eye”12.
  • People don‚Äôt make decisions based upon their true experience13.¬†Many stock and mutual traders believe that particular superstitions have some influence on their trading. A special algorithmic trading system based on superstitions has been launched in the United States14.
  • Many Thai people believe they are protected by an amulet imprinted from a selected temple, including prime ministers15, in a similar way some Christians may wear a Saint Christopher‚Äôs medal for a sense of protection from injury.

These few examples above just confirm that people in business and public office have their own little idiosyncrasies and superstitions such as favorite ties, pen or suit to wear to meetings, have a particular ornament in the office, or read the daily horoscope before leaving home. Research has shown that adhering to a regime of superstitions may have something to do with a belief in self efficacy16, and thus superstition in business decision making is skewed to the positive. Superstition in the case of business may act as a confidence bias, and reinforce persistence17.

Superstition influences our assumptions and shape our mental maps

As superstitionis a cultural phenomenon, it must work its way into our assumptions in order to integrate into mental maps and shape our values. Then superstition or the assumptions behind our superstition will act as heuristics that assist in solving our basic problems. Some of the basic assumptions we may carry over into mental maps from superstitions may include:

  • The nature of reality and truth:Some of the basic “Western” superstitions like black cats crossing your path and walking under a ladder carry the assumption of care within the environment. These may have evolved from religious beliefs in maintaining the Holy Trinity and black cats being associated with witchcraft in medieval times.¬†Some superstitions like making a wish on a¬†“wishbone”,¬†carrying a rabbits foot or crossing one‚Äôs fingers may give a person some form of illusion of control over the environment18.
  • The nature of time:¬†Superstitions such as bad luck comes in threes is a time based caution to be vigilant in the environment¬†in the future. Friday the 13th along with many Asian superstitions about times concern tempting fate at certain periods.
  • The nature of space:¬†Many people feel that if an object has come into contact with a person with some form of sickness like HIV or cancer, they are loathed to touch it, and avoid direct contact19.
  • The nature of human nature:¬†Making a wish on a¬†“wishbone”,¬†carrying a rabbits foot or crossing one‚Äôs fingers carry the metaphor of hope and pursuing aspiration. The rabbit‚Äôs foot may have been based upon Celtic folklore in England, the “wishbone” with early¬†“medicine-men”¬†and crossing fingers with the Christian faith.


Superstition is a coping mechanism for overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety, or hope. In business it may also be a means of developing confidence and a sense of self efficacy. As we have seen, superstitious beliefs work deep down within our core assumptions and can be defined as social heuristics. Superstition as a heuristic is intertwined without our knowledge structure and therefore becomes a factor in the assessments, judgments and decisions we make. They are part of the decision process20.

On the negative side, heuristics can become cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are errors of judgment based on misconceptions of the facts, memory errors, probability errors, motivational factors, and/or social influences. These are the basis of irrational reasoning which can lead to all sorts of mistakes in judgment21.

Hood postulated that superstitions came out of our sense of duality where we tend to seek external solutions to our problems and apportion external reasons for success and failure, etc. Thus objects take on a certain¬†“vitalism”¬†through our projections upon them of our fears, anxieties, and aspirations22.

Finally we postulate that there could be three types of superstition, from the perspective of influence upon decision making.

The first type of superstition has only a marginal influence and only taken half seriously by the majority of people in society. These are folklore superstition like luck coming from holding a four leaf clover, or the number “13” being an unlucky number. These superstitions may only be¬†“half believed”¬†or¬†“taken as a grain of salt”,¬†so as to say.¬†Even though many of these little superstitions are seen for what they are, the taboos are often avoided consciously. For example, in many buildings in Western countries there is often no “13th” floor. The “13th” floor may be designated “12A” or just missed altogether. This however may not directly reflect any superstition on the part of a building owner, but more as a measure taken so as not to make any potential tenants hesitant to lease or rent space in the building.

The second type of superstition is what could be called pseudo science. Pseudo science encompasses beliefs that may be portrayed as being scientifically based, but are really based on anecdote, rather than strict empirical based research23. Such practices that could be considered pseudo science may include astrology, aromatherapy, Reiki, and homeopathy. Even many management ideas portrayed as positivist theories without empirical research support could also fall into this category24. As our knowledge evolves, many ideas we once had become redundant and replaced with new knowledge. However some people tend to cling to old ideas, which by definition become superstitions.

The third type of superstitions are those that as we have seen, are embedded deep in our assumptions, shaping our mental maps manifesting themselves as heuristics in the way we think and make decisions. These are dangerous when we are not aware of the real influence these superstitions have upon our thinking. The only way we can really see the influence of superstition upon a person is through very carefully analyzing a person‚Äôs narrative to see the assumptions behind what they think, say and do. This can sometimes be picked up in narrative, as phrases like¬†‚ÄėI think‚Äô, ‚ÄėI feel‚Äô, ‚ÄėI believe‚Äô, ‚ÄėI reckon‚Äô¬†or¬†‚Äėit is unlikely that‚Äô,¬†etc25.¬†These deep set superstitions may also manifest through artifacts and how they are used, like¬†Saint Christopher‚Äôs medals, Buddha statues, or Qu‚Äôranic calligraphy26,¬†and the rituals and ceremonies a person may perform, and understanding the real reasons the person is actually performing them.

The problem with any categorization, like the one above, is that what could be truth and knowledge today, may be superstition in the future. Peoples’ categorization of their superstitions may vary according to the individual depending upon the belief commitment to particular superstitions they may have.

Attitudes to superstition are rapidly changing, however many superstitions are subtly embedded within our assumptions, shape our mental maps, and manifest as unconscious biases through heuristics upon our thoughts and decisions.

Superstition is a primeval aspect of our consciousness, an archetypal hangover from our primitive beginnings27. Superstition is the basis of many rituals and ceremonies creating part of a person’s nexus with society. As we have seen superstition is still very much used as a tool by institution and government playing on the primeval origins of our psych as modern manifestation of witches and warlocks, good and evil, playing on fear and pandering to the need of survival and protection28.

The authors believe that superstition will receive much more attention from management researchers in the future.

1 Freud, S., (1950), Totem and Taboo, London, Ark books, P. 98.

2 Levi-Strauss. C., (1963), Structural Anthropology, New York, Basic Books, pp. 208-209.

3 Clow, B., H., (2011), Awakening the Planetary Mind: Beyond the trauma of the past to a new era of creativity, Rochester, Vermont, Bear & Company, pp. 14-15.

4 Hood, B., (2010), The Science of Superstition: How the developing brain creates supernatural beliefs, New York, HarperCollins.

5 Vyse, S., A., (2000), Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 19-22.

6¬†Vyse, S., A., (2000), “Believing in Magic”,¬†pp. 5 & 52.

7 Day, M., S., (1984), The Many Meanings of Myth, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, pp. 254-255.

8 Kramer, T. & Block, L., (2008), Conscious and non-conscious components of superstitious beliefs in judgment and decision making, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 36, No. 4., pp. 783-793. 

9 Block, L. & Kramer, T., (2009), The effect of superstitious beliefs on performance expectations, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 161-169.

10 Tsang, E., W., K., (2004), Toward a Scientific Inquiry into superstitious business decision-making, Organizational Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 923-946.

11 Ali Rahnema, (2011), Superstition and Ideology in Iranian Politics: From Majlesi to Ahmadinejad, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

12 Bass, S., (2010), Superstitious Politicians: Zardari’s Goat Sacrifice, ABC News, 2nd August,, (accessed 10th November 2012).

13 Kahneman, D., (2011), Thinking Fast and Slow, London, Allen Lane, P. 12.

14 See: Wolman, D., (2012), Superstitious Fund: Too mystic to fail, BBC Future,, (accessed 10th November 2012).

15 Trsaithep Krai-ngu, (2009), PM protected by amulet shield, The Nation,, (accessed 10th November 2012).

16 Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweller, T., (2010), Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How superstition improves performance, Psychological Science, Vol. 21, No. 7, pp. 1014-1020.

17 See: Makridakis, S., Hogarth, R., & Gaba, A., (2009), Dance with Chance: making it work for you, Oxford, Oneworld, and Small Business Superstitions and Why They Work,, (accessed 10th November 2012).

18 Wegner, D., M., & Wheatley, T., (1999), Apparent mental causation: Sources of the experience of will, American Psychologist, Vol. 54, No. 7., pp. 480-492.

19 Rozin, P., Grant, H., Weinberg, S., & Parker, S., (2007), Head verses heart: Effect of monetary frames on expression of sympathetic magical concerns, Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 217-224.

20 Wright, W. F. and Bower, G. H. (1992). Mood effects on subjective probability assessment, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 52, pp. 276-291.

21 Baron, R. A. (1998). Cognitive mechanisms in entrepreneurship: why and when entrepreneurs think differently than other people, Journal of Business Venturing, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 275-294.

22¬†Hood, B., (2010), “The Science of Superstition”.

23 Gardner, M., (1957), Fads and fallacies in the name of science, 2nd edition, New York, Dover Publications.

24¬†For example in Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman‚Äôs seminal book¬†“In Search of Excellence”¬†they postulate that by¬†“sticking close to the knitting”¬†a firm will have more chance of achieving excellence. However this is not supported by research. Differing research in this field may often come to different conclusions, so this could be considered a myth or even superstition. See: Byrne, J. A. (2001). The Real Confessions of Tom Peters: Did¬†In Search of Excellence¬†Fake Data? A Magazine suggests it did,¬†Bloomberg Businessweek,¬†3rd¬†December,¬†, (accessed 9th¬†February 2011).

25 Hunter, M., (2012), Opportunity, Strategy, & Entrepreneurship: A meta-theory, Volume 1, New York, Nova Science, P. 329.

26 It is important to mention here that it is the person’s belief in the properties of the artifact that is important here.

27 Jung, C., G., (1964), Man and His Symbols, London, Aldus Books,P. 71.

28¬†Jung, C., G., (1964), “Man and His Symbols”,¬†P. 86.

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