Incense being burned at the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival in Wong Tai Sin, Hong Kong. Photo: Sam Tsang

Our need for control is at the heart of superstition

Zhang Yan

All year round, roadside vendors under a flyover in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, would offer the unique service of hitting dummy effigies of “villains” in an attempt to drive evil away.

The engagement of this superstitious act is driven in large part by a need to control. Engaging in superstitious behaviour gives individuals a sense of control over destiny.

And this month, which coincides with the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the gates of hell will open for the spirits to wander the human world. Joss sticks will be burned and prayers offered to soothe the roaming spirits.

Engaging in superstitious behaviour gives individuals a sense of control over destiny

Such superstitious beliefs extend to everyday conversations. Suppose someone were to say, “I have always been a safe driver. There is no way I will get into an accident.” More often than not, in a case like this, negative outcomes spring to mind, leading people into believing something terrible is going to occur.

In response, they try to “undo” such bad luck with superstitious rituals such as knocking on wood or throwing salt. Feng shui experts recommend that throwing away egg shells or pouring out water is also effective in reversing bad fortune.

These rituals appear to be random and unrelated. However, they share a common feature underlying their “success” – they involve motor movements that exert force away from the physical self, avoidant actions that simulate the pushing away of bad luck.


Does the mere act of pushing away make people feel they have avoided bad luck?

As part of my research at the National University of Singapore Business School, my co-researchers and I looked into how people feel after engaging in rituals to ward off bad luck. This would shed light on why people engage in particular types of behaviour for managing superstitions.

In five separate experiments, people were led to a conversation regarding an unlucky event – car accident, getting mugged, falling ill – that either triggered or did not trigger a sense of tempting fate.
Residential buildings Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, China. Flats with the number 8 in the address tend to carry a premium among the Chinese, who regard it as lucky. Photo: Bloomberg
Then, they were instructed to engage in an action that was either superstition-associated (knocking on wood) or not (action with a ball). Additionally, half of these actions involved avoidant actions (knocking down on a wooden table; throwing away a ball) and half did not (knocking upwards on the underside of a wooden table; holding the ball).

For those whose superstitious beliefs were triggered, having them engage in a superstitious avoidant action that pushes bad luck away (knocking down on wood) reduced their perception of being jinxed. In contrast, those who engaged in a superstitious action that involved movement towards the self (knocking up on wood) felt the highest likelihood of getting into an unlucky event.


Even when the actions were not superstition-related (actions with a ball), similar findings were observed. When individuals engaged in an avoidant action such as throwing away a ball, they felt they were less likely to fall ill or get mugged than those who held on to the ball.

When individuals did not tempt fate, whatever actions they took had no effect on their perception of the likelihood of being involved in a car accident.


So why does engaging in avoidant actions affect perceptions of luck? We found that such avoidant actions are influential only when negative thoughts are already in someone’s mind. Such actions led people to form a more hazy memory of negative events.

In Chengdu, apartments on floors with numbers ending in ‘8’ were almost 9 per cent higher when sold as a resale

Our research demonstrates that there is a broad desire for control, leading to people using rituals to reverse their fortune. This is seen in people hiring villain hitters to drive evil away and rituals that ward off spirits during China’s Hungry Ghost month. As such, avoidant actions are selected because they are effective in reducing people’s concerns about a jinxed event.


If avoidant actions can help reduce the perceived likelihood of negative events, then approach actions would be effective in creating a sense of good luck, where people see picking up money and four-leaf clovers as a sign of good fortune.

This may well explain why the Chinese spend so much money on acquiring the number ‘8’ for their car and property. The prices of vehicle licence plates bearing the lucky ‘8’ are higher at public auction than those without it, while prices of license numbers that include the unlucky ‘4’ are lower.

In Vancouver, neighbourhoods with relatively more Chinese residents saw sales prices of houses with street address numbers ending in ‘4’ lower by 2.2 per cent, while those ending in ‘8’ were 2.5 per cent higher than homes with other addresses.


In Chengdu, apartments on floors with numbers ending in ‘8’ were almost 9 per cent higher when sold as a resale.

Even the Bank of China is not immune to superstitious influence. It opened its operations in Hong Kong on August 8, 1988; while the Beijing Olympic Games was officially opened at 8:08pm on August 8, 2008.

Finally, people may engage in shielding actions. This could be a non-superstitious act like hiding behind a tree, or a superstitious one like wearing a talisman, to create a sense of protection.

Zhang Yan is associate professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Superstition is just desire for control