America’s Top Superstitions — And Where They Come From

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If you knock on wood when you say something presumptuous or freak out when you see a broken mirror, you’re not alone — Americans are still very superstitious. Here’s why. (Image: Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Health/iStock)

They may seem old-fashioned, but superstitions are still alive and well, according to a new survey. Crowdsourcing website Ranker.com polled 18,000 people on the superstitions they believe in and found that, as a whole, people are still very superstitious.

Here are the top 10 most widely believed superstitions, per the survey:

1. Knocking on wood
2. Wishing on a star
3. Breaking a mirror
4. Four-leaf clover
5. Bad news comes in threes
6. Don’t open an umbrella inside
7. Lucky penny
8. Beginner’s luck
9. Saying “bless you” when someone sneezes
10. Wishing on a wishbone

The top superstitions also varied by age and gender: Women ranked tossing salt over your left shoulder after you spill it as one of their top superstitions, while men and millennials said wishing on a star was theirs. People from Generation X and baby boomers said the lucky penny (getting good luck after you find a heads-up penny) was their No.1 superstitious belief.

Psychologist Stuart Vyse, PhD, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, tells Yahoo Health that superstitions are more common than we think. “Some polls have found that over 50 percent of Americans consider themselves at least a little superstitious,” he says.

Many people believe in superstitions because life is uncertain. “When we really want something to happen yet we can’t make it happen for certain, we grasp for things that seem unlikely,” Vyse says. “Superstitions offer a feeling of control where control isn’t possible.”

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Superstitions are also learned and spread around societies, Donald A. Saucier, PhD, a professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University, tells Yahoo Health. “If we knock on wood, and then something bad doesn’t happen, we may think that we stopped a bad event by knocking on wood,” he says. “As we learn these associations, we may discuss them with others, and over time, may embed them in our culture.”

But where did these come from in the first place? Superstition expert Benjamin Radford, a research fellow at the Center for Inquiry and member of the American Folklore Society, tells Yahoo Health that some origins are clearer than others.

Here’s what’s behind these common superstitions, per Radford:

Knocking on wood
Knocking is a modern spin on it — originally, the superstition just involved touching wood. “Medieval churches would be filled with wood that claimed to be from the cross,” explains Radford. The devout believed that touching the wood would give them a link to the divine and, consequently, good luck. The superstition grew from there. (Radford notes that pagans also revered wood for its strength.)

Wishing on a star

Once upon a time, pointing to a whole host of things (including people) was considered rude. At the same time, twinkling stars were considered to be supernatural beings. “Since it was considered unlucky to point to the star, people would wish on it to petition good luck from it without offending the supernatural being,” Radford says.

Breaking a mirror

The mirror was once considered to be divine and supernatural, and breaking the image was thought to violate its divinity. As a result, the breaker would receive bad luck.

Four-leaf clover

Clovers were once believed to keep away witches and allow the finder to see fairies. “A four-leaf clover was especially rare, and therefore even more powerful,” Radford explains.

Bad news comes in threes

There are a few theories behind this one. One ties to the holy trinity of father, son, and holy ghost or spirit, with the notion that important things (good and bad) come in threes. The second is that three establishes a pattern. Something happening once could be random, twice could just be chance, but three times means something, Radford says.

Don’t open an umbrella inside

Radford says it’s not entirely clear where this came from but it could be that earlier umbrellas had a tight spring that could catch and injure a finger. If you were going to use one, it was best to do so when you actually needed it.

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Lucky penny

There are several reasons this may have come about, but Radford points out that finding any money is lucky and pennies are common; therefore there are many opportunities to find some kind of significance with them (like the year you were married, your birth date, and so on).

Beginner’s luck

This could have been as simple as a way to encourage people to try something new, Radford says.

Saying “bless you” when someone sneezes

It was once believed that evil spirits could enter a person’s body when they sneezed, Radford says. By saying “bless you,” a person bestows blessings on the sneezer that ward off the evil spirits.

Wishing on a wishbone

Fowl were once used as tools of divination, Radford says, including a practice called haruspication, in which soothsayers inspected the entrails of a recently killed bird. Afterward, the collarbone would be laid out in the sun to dry. A person would make a wish upon it and snap it with another person. Whoever received the larger piece of the collarbone got a sign that the gods heard him or her.

People may eventually discard superstitions if they find they’re no longer “working” for them, Saucier says, but often all it takes is one instance of that superstition to bring it back again.

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