Try over the next few days to observe certain things about your routine. When you wake up and you get dressed in the morning do you always put one arm in your shirt before the other? Do you always put your left shoe on first? When you go to the grocery store do you always seem to park in the same section of the parking lot even though there may be spots open somewhere else? Do you have a lucky number, or a lucky color, or a lucky coin, or a lucky crystal that you carry in your pocket to an important meeting? What other habits and possible superstitions or rituals do you have that you can identify?
If you discover that you have a lot more habits and routines than you thought, know that you are not alone in this. We all have them. Rituals, habits, and superstitions are explained as not entirely rational actions but include the belief that an individual can somehow manipulate what’s going to happen in the future by engaging in certain behaviors today, even though there is no clear cause and effect relationship between the behaviors today and the outcome they may have in the future.
If some of these beliefs sound so irrational, why do so many people in the world act in superstitious ways, every day, without even realizing it? Let’s look at the psychology behind these habits by observing the world around us. Everyone in the world is living in a stressful time. We’ve just lived through a global pandemic that is still influencing how we live our lives, and, every year we have natural disasters. Throughout history, and in current times, we have had wars, see or experience hunger and see people suffering. These are just a few examples of what we are exposed to every time we look at our phone, watch the news, or we open a TV or a computer. The truth is, the only constant in the world is change and these days, change it’s happening pretty fast. Today we depend so much on technology and because of it, the global social, political, and economic influences can change overnight. Having immediate access to information gives us little time to adjust to previous changes. We are in a constant state of change.
All these rapid changes bring more uncertainty in our lives, and the natural reaction of humans is that the more unpredictable the world becomes, the more we hold on to as much as we can, to things that offer us a sense of control over our lives. The more anxious and uncertain we feel the more we cling to our known behaviors and rituals to help us move along.
A professor of psychology at the University of Bristol in England said that if we remove the appearance of being in control, we become stressed. And superstition and rituals have been scientifically linked to humans’ need for control in a changing world. This is the exact explanation for what happened last year during the pandemic when, because of lack of control over the situation we were in, many people around the world chose to do things like buying toilet paper in bulk, just so they can assert what little control they felt they could have over their lives, in those unsure moments.
Some people, when they think of superstitions and rituals, think of something mystical, mysterious even, but think of a ritual more as a routine, as something that it’s not necessarily secretive, or bad for us, as many of those rituals have been shown to be beneficial to our mental and physical well-being. For example, according to an article published in the journal of family psychology, if we feed our babies at certain times every day, this creates a sense of ritual, of sameness. It is shown that children who have this consistency have a happier and healthier life, they perform better in school and tend to make better decisions as they grow up..
In fact, observational studies have shown that most individuals around the world perform a common predictable series of rituals from the moment they get up in the morning to the moment they go to bed.
First, when we wake up, we all tend to brush our teeth, take a bath or a shower, have some kind of a beverage, look out the window or at our smartphones – all these actions help us feel a sense of control over whatever the day will bring. Most people are going to eat meals with other people, at least once every day. It may be a nice sushi dinner with a significant other, or breakfast with family, or maybe lunch with friends. Whatever the exact meal ritual is for everybody, it has importance, as it “reunites us with our tribe”, making us members of a group.
Another ritual that most humans practice in one way or another, is they work on putting themselves out there looking their best. This doesn’t necessarily mean how they dress or if they wear makeup or dab on some cologne, but this routine is followed more to express that we are confident beings. So we get groomed, and we ask our friends for reassurance and validation. We also like to talk with one another and plan for what’s going to come. At the end of each day, we all perform certain rituals before going to bed at night. No matter where we are in the world, we will turn off the lights before we get to bed, we may lower the heat in the house, we may make sure that the windows and doors are locked, etc. Psychologists agree that these rituals have everything to do with maintaining our control or at least the illusion that we are in control, and we all perform one, two or more types of rituals every day.
Some of us have “special” types of rituals, some based in superstition or irrational beliefs and most of us are not even aware that we are doing them.
Let’s look at an example;
Donna wakes up early Thursday morning and sees that the sky is cloudy and heavy with rain. As usual, she set her alarm clock 10 minutes before her wake-up time, so she has some extra time to get ready. She brushes her teeth, takes a shower, brushes her hair, drinks her cup of coffee, gets dressed and heads to the office. Before she leaves the house, she checks to make sure that all windows are closed, as it may rain, and she makes sure that she turns off her coffee maker. She always steps through a door with her right foot first, cause that’s what her grandma told her it’s good to do. She drives 20 minutes in busy traffic, making sure that she stays in the right lane of the street to make it easier for her to exit where necessary, and once she has arrived at her destination, she parks her car on the third floor of the parking garage, because that’s her lucky number.
While she walks towards the office building, her path is crossed by a black cat, so right away Donna stops and takes 3 steps back to shake off any bad luck. She gets to her desk, opens her computer, checks her emails first as she does every morning, says Good Morning to Johnny and to Rita.. and heads over to the coffee room to get her second daily cup of coffee.
At noon she has lunch with her friends. The sun is out so she decides to work outside the rest of the day. She goes to her usual Starbucks, takes a seat at her favorite outside table, and throws a coin in the fountain nearby, making a wish to get Mrs. Johnston as a client, with whom she had a call conversation yesterday and who is exactly her target client.
A few hours pass and the 3rd cup of coffee is finished, and suddenly a wave of happiness takes her over when she receives an email from Mrs. Johnston saying that she is on board and wants to sign up. Donna is super happy because she got what she wanted and the wish she made in the fountain came through. Of course, she knew that it was because of her hard work but she couldn’t help but to give some credit to the coin that she cast into the fountain earlier.
For dinner she meets with three or her best friends, which she kisses on both their cheeks, because this was something she adopted after vacationing in France 2 summers ago. They chose to eat at a Chinese restaurant tonight and after the meal she cracked open her fortune cookie which said, “in life you have the best of luck”, and that made her feel great. The fortune also gave her some lucky numbers, 5, 22, 34, 37, 39 and 40, so she decided to stop by and get a lottery ticket on her way home because she is feeling particularly lucky today.
Once she gets home, she changes into her comfy house clothes, sits on her couch in her favorite spot, and watches on Netflix, an episode of her favorite show. Then as she gets ready for bed, she realizes that tomorrow it’s Friday the 13th, and for no apparent reason she feels a surge of anxiety. Therefore, she takes a quick look at her horoscope for tomorrow and thank God, it doesn’t say anything bad.
It’s bedtime, so Donna goes to brush her teeth and gets ready for bed. She turns on her favorite night light and puts on her relaxation music playlist. And while in bed, she’s thinking that this Saturday is one of her best friend’s weddings and she is curious what music they will play, as her and her future husband are both German. Donna finally falls asleep.
What do you think? How many of the things I mentioned in Donna’s Day do you do every single day? Can you see now that most rituals and superstitious behaviors are so ingrained in our lifestyles and culture that we often just do things, never thinking about why we’re doing them? This is the same for everybody around the world. The rituals and habits may vary, but all humans are driven to some degree, by actions we take automatically. Did you know that if you want to sit in row 13 on any airplane from Air France, KLM, Iberia and others, there isn’t one? Most high-rise buildings don’t have a 13th floor.
From daily behavior to sports, in the workplace, for travel, food, colors, numbers, we are all connected in a way, by performing these rituals and having some superstitious beliefs due to our cultures and how we were brought up.
You may ask, what do these rituals and superstitions have to do with what we think when we buy things. Well, they have a lot to do with it. Many products and brands have some kind of ritual or superstition associated with them and tend to be things we buy again and again, due to brand loyalty, more so than those brands and products that don’t. As we are continuously searching for stability and familiarity in this ever-changing world, our product rituals give us an illusion of comfort and belonging. There is this sense that you get – being part of the iPhone user community or the Android users, or Netflix community, or going to group exercise programs like Zumba or Jazzercise, or the Udemy instructor’s community.
If you look around, most malls and shopping centers all over the world carry almost the same brands. It is likely that you will find a Starbucks there as well. These specific rituals assigned to each brand actually help differentiate them from one another. Isn’t it true that once we start using a certain fragrance and we love it, doesn’t it become familiar, and we identify ourselves with it and we want to buy it again? Or once we use a certain soap or certain shampoo, don’t we get a sense of stability every time we wash our hair that we can depend on the quality and how our hair looks and feels? These types of rituals create in consumers a very strong sense of loyalty towards their favorite brands and products. The same applies with the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, even the computers we use and cars we drive.
It is shown that buying a product repeatedly is more often a ritualized behavior rather than a conscious decision. When we buy an anti-wrinkle cream, do we even know if it actually works? Companies will show us an image of before and after pictures and promise results if you use their product many times a day in a prescribed way. We all know that none of us is getting any younger, that we are going to form wrinkles, and yet, we still buy that anti-wrinkle cream religiously every three months. How did we even get started using facial creams? Because using “beauty creams” is a ritual that we’ve seen in our mothers and grandmothers before them, and we have always followed it.
These kinds of rituals occur simply because most of us are creatures of habit. Think of how loyal iPhone users are to their phone’s platform, and how lost an iPhone user looks when they have to navigate or find something on an Android phone? Wait, the messages button is not on the left side, it’s actually on the right? And there is similar loyalty for android users, who feel lost on an Apple product and don’t understand the appeal.
Food rituals can be found everywhere, in any culture. In America we eat turkey cooked in an oven for Thanksgiving, in Romania they eat pork for Christmas and lamb for Easter. All these are traditions and rituals. When you eat chicken or Turkey do you break the wishbone? That bone that looks like a V, two people each take an end, pull, and then you make a wish? Do you open an Oreo cookie and eat the cream inside first, or do you eat the Oreo as a whole cookie sandwich, dipped in milk, like the manufacturer suggested you should? According to Mike Feherty, the senior category business director for Oreo, an Oreo is not just a cookie, it’s a ritual.
Businesses themselves have rituals as well. When you go to a fast-food place like Chipotle or Subway, their foods are constructed in the same way each time, so the customers know precisely how the person behind the counter is going to make their food.
Superstitions and rituals can take deeper forms than how we eat an Oreo or how we make a sandwich. There are many other ways, which are often irrational, on how we behave when it comes to products we buy. Let’s take shoes for example. If you know a little bit about collecting things, and a potential obsession with a specific type of item, you can probably understand that when we buy shoes we often get involved in habitual, repeated actions that have little or no logical basis. Collecting shoes is often driven by a love for beautiful shoes. The shoes are not always comfortable, or practical. At a deeper level, habitual buying comes from a need for a sense of control in an overwhelming and complex world. If we wear beautiful or fashionable shoes, we feel good about ourselves and such, feel in control of our lives.
Our distant ancestors were hunters and gatherers, storing most food for difficult days ahead. They did this to survive. In some ways, collecting things like shoes is much for the same reason, but not necessarily for the physical survival, but for our emotional one. In medieval times collecting was an exclusive activity of the rich but today, people of all income levels accumulate everything, from happy meal toys, to shoes, perfumes, books, etc. Brand obsession typically starts in the adolescent years and sometimes even earlier. Collecting anything from coins or stamps, to leaves and dried pressed flowers, gives children a sense of completion and control. It raises their self-esteem, while elevating their social status among their friends. The same happens in adults. When we are stressed out, or when life feels out of control, we often seek comfort in the accumulation of familiar products and objects, creating consistent patterns in our lives. Have you ever heard of “Retail Therapy”?
So, even though our brains will tell us that it’s completely irrational and illogical to own 150 pairs of shoes, or to purchase an industrial amount of toilet paper, we buy them anyway, to enhance our illusion that we have control over our lives.
Author: Sanda Kruger
Sanda is an entrepreneur, real estate investor, health coach and professional dancer. Sanda is an entrepreneur with more than 20-year experience in business development and project management in the fields of life, health and fitness coaching. She is also a real estate investor and a banker, who learned outstanding adapted business strategies, sales and marketing techniques, communication, and goal setting skills, hands-on, through life and work experiences. She is a certified fitness professional and is the creator of two original fitness programs, called BellyCore® Fitness and AquaCor®.