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"Walking under the ladder": Superstition and Ritual as a Cognitive bias in Management Decision making "Walking under the ladder": Superstition and Ritual as a Cognitive bias in Management Decision making
by Ovi Magazine Guest
2013-02-16 11:28:55
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Dr. Yoshifumi Harada / Professor Murray Hunter

Abstract. This article looks at superstition as an influence upon decision making. The article briefly describes the phenomenon of superstition, its probable origins and affects on assumptions, before explaining how superstitions work into our mental maps. Finally three categories of superstition are defined.

1. Introduction

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 behind.1

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 culture.2

Many superstitions derive basis in ancient science and remain as remnants such as the evolution of astrology.3 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 aspiration.4

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 events.5 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 ceremonies.6

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 society.7 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 “touching wood” 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.

2. 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 management.8

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 its 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 superstition.9

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.

“Feng shui,” 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 making.10

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’s 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't make decisions based upon their true experience.13 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 States.14

Many Thai people believe they are protected by an amulet imprinted from a selected temple, including prime ministers,15 in a similar way some Christians may wear a Saint Christopher's 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 efficacy,16 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 persistence.17

3. Superstition Influences our Assumptions and Shapes Our Mental Maps

As superstition is 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's fingers may give a person some form of illusion of control over the environment.18

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 contact.19

The nature of human nature: Making a wish on a “wishbone, carrying a rabbit’s foot or crossing one’s fingers carry the metaphor of hope and pursuing aspiration. The rabbit’s foot may have been based upon Celtic folklore in England, the “wishbone” with early “medicine-men” and crossing fingers with the Christian faith.

4. Conclusion

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 process.20

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 judgment.21

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 aspirations.22

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 superstitions 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 research.23 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 category.24 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's narrative to see the assumptions behind what they think, say and do. This can sometimes be picked up in narrative, as phrases like “I think,” “I feel,” “I believe,” “I reckon” or “it is unlikely that,etc.25 These deep set superstitions may also manifest through artifacts and how they are used, like Saint Christopher’s medals, Buddha statues, or Qu’ranic calligraphy,26 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 beginnings.27 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 protection.28

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, 98.

2. Levi-Strauss, C. (1963), Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 208209.

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, 1415.

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, 1922.

6. Vyse, S. A. (2000), Believing in Magic, 5 and 52.

7. Day, M. S. (1984), The Many Meanings of Myth. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 254255.

8. Kramer, T., and Block, L., (2008), “Conscious and Non-conscious Components of Superstitious Beliefs in Judgment and Decision Making,” Journal of Consumer Research 36(4): 783793. 

9. Block, L., and Kramer, T. (2009), “The Effect of Superstitious Beliefs on Performance Expectations,” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 37(2): 161169.

10. Tsang, E. W. K. (2004), “Toward a Scientific Inquiry into Superstitious Business Decision-making,” Organizational Studies 25(6): 923946.

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, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2010/01/superstitious-politicians-zardaris-goat-sacrifice/ (accessed 10th November 2012).

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

14. See: Wolman, D. (2012), “Superstitious Fund: Too Mystic to Fail,” BBC Future,http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120731-bulls-bears-and-black-cats, (accessed 10th November 2012).

15. Trsaithep Krai-ngu (2009), “PM Protected by Amulet Shield,” The Nation, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2009/12/13/politics/politics_30118407.php(accessed 10th November 2012).

16. Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., and Mussweller, T. (2010), “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” Psychological Science 21(7): 10141020.

17. See: Makridakis, S., Hogarth, R., and Gaba, A., (2009), Dance with Chance: Making It Work for You. Oxford: Oneworld, and “Small Business Superstitions and Why They Work,” http://worklovelife.com/2010/05/small-business-superstitions-and-why-they-work/, (accessed 10th November 2012).

18. Wegner, D. M., and Wheatley, T. (1999), “Apparent Mental Causation: Sources of the Experience of Will,” American Psychologist 54(7): 480492.

19. Rozin, P., Grant, H., Weinberg, S., and Parker, S. (2007), “Head versus Heart: Effect of Monetary Frames on Expression of Sympathetic Magical Concerns,” Judgment and Decision Making 2(4): 217224.

20. Wright, W. F., and Bower, G. H. (1992), “Mood Effects on Subjective Probability Assessment,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 52: 276291.

21. Baron, R. A. (1998), “Cognitive Mechanisms in Entrepreneurship: Why and When Entrepreneurs Think Differently than Other People,” Journal of Business Venturing 13(3): 275294.

22. Hood, B. (2010), The Science of Superstition.

23. Gardner, M. (1957), Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 2nd edn.New York: Dover Publications.

24. For example in Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman’s 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, http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/01_49/b3760040.htm (accessed 9th February 2011).

25. Hunter, M. (2012), Opportunity, Strategy, & Entrepreneurship: A Meta-theory, Volume 1. New York: Nova Science, 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,71.

28. Jung, C. G. (1964), Man and His Symbols,86.


© Yoshifumi Harada, Murray Hunter

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Thanos2013-02-16 11:44:41
Great article. I’m not a superstitious person still I found myself in a very weird position when in three companies I worked for; companies with global interests, offices all around and in all three of them the GMs were superstitious. In one of them especially he wouldn’t come to the office Friday 13th, or have anything with black (?) frame in his office.

Their superstitious didn’t make it difficult to work with them, it just made them predictable and I’m not sure if that was good.

From the other side sports is one thing is full of superstitious people and acts. Sometimes watching football in a stadium it is more fun watching the people and their little or big rituals that include what they were, where they sit, what they eat or carry!

Emanuel Paparella2013-02-16 13:47:33
Interesting insights Thanos. I too meet superstitious people from time to time. Every time I do I am brought back to Carl Jung’s famous saying: throw religion out the window and it will come came as a superstition or a cult from the back door.

I don’t know about Europe, but here in the U.S. there is a plethora of TV shows on ghosts (called paranormal phenomena) where “scientists” so called come to a haunted house equipped with all kinds of machines that can detect ghosts and at the end of their investigation they release a “scientific” certificate declaring your house haunted or clean, after you paid them a hefty feee, of course; and then you have those who will narrate for hours at a time their ghost experiences.

I think Jung had it on target. It is great fallacy of modern man in search of his soul which he confuses for the soule of his feet, to confuse religion with superstition. Religion, or the burial of the dead, which is something still ongoing in every civilized society and is in fact something that is intrinsic part of every civilization, even the most primitive ones, as Vico has well taught us in his New Science; it is in fact, according to the same Jung, intrinsic part of human nature and a sine qua non of remaining human, even when it takes the form of a cult or a superstition. But to confuse ritual with superstition is to have wholly missed the boat on the subject, no matter how many scientific bibliographies one attaches under one's treatise.

I wonder where would Jung place the reading of tea leaves, the daily horoscope and astrology, the fathoming of one’s previous lives and incarnations, and last but not least palm reading. Would he consign them to the field of superstition or perhaps that of abnormal psychology, and if so would he be humble enough to admit that as a mere psychologist with no MBA under his belt he would be unable to manage those entrepreneurial superstitious practices and enterprises? Food for thought!

Emanuel Paparella2013-02-16 14:28:28

For the curious reader who may wish to deepen a bit what was expressed in a schematic mode in the comment above, she/he may opt to open the link above to an article I wrote for Ovi some four years ago by the title of “Carl Gustav Jung and ‘Modern Man in Search of a Soul.’”

Emanuel Paparella2013-02-16 14:47:52

P.S. Since the stopping of meteorites is mentioned as a superstition of sort in the article, the above lin will take the reader to an article on the subject just out today in The Berkshire Eagle. The question naturally arises: is this an example of science, pseudo science, superstition, or belief? Hard to tell but Jung’s insight remains intact with its quip: throw religion out the window and it will come back in a distorted mode as a cult or superstition from the back door.

Emanuel Paparella2013-02-16 15:35:59

P.S.S. Again, to the curious reader: a follow-up to the linked article mentioned above ensues with the link here included to an article which was posted in Ovi only three months ago and revisits the issue of religion and superstition.

The article is titled “Religion: An Obscene Word?” It was followed by some interesting comments among which the editor of the magazine Thanos and one of the "guest speakers" of today’s article on superstition and cognitive biases. The reader may find it it all intriguing and thought provoking.

Leah Sellers2013-02-16 23:57:14
Wonderful article, Gentlemen !
Superstions are truly good predictors regarding Human Behaviors (including Our Own - ha !)
I happen to believe that the number thirteen is a lucky number, because 1+3=4. And the number four has a good Cosmological, Physical and Mathmatical symmetry and resonance to it.
I also have a black cat with gorgeous green eyes named Sami, because I see black as the color of fertility and the burgeoning of the Un-Conscience. Plus, he was parctically born in the palm of my hands, and I Love him dearly.
However, I do avoid walking under ladders, especially if there is someone with a paint can and brush in hand on board. No need to tempt Fate when there's no need to. Besides, the walk around the ladder is just more and better exercise in the long run. Just make sure to avoid stepping on any cracks in the sidewalks on your way around - ha !

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