Merely Superstitious… OCD and Superstition

by endlesspsych

I’ve noticed, in a completely anecdotal fashion subject to confirmation bias and the fact I want to blog about this, that when the subject of superstition comes up among scientific/sceptical folks someone invariably seems to mention Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The implication being that superstitious beliefs are somehow linked with the obsessive behaviours and compulsions that people with OCD display. Essentially that black cats crossing your path and checking behaviours are related in that they both involved following some ritualistic behaviour or reacting in a stereotyped predetermined fashion to some real or imagined stimuli.

Now to my mind this comparison really only holds true using quite a reductionist view of superstitions that they are  irrational beliefs held about a wide range of stimuli (black cats, magpies etc) that generally involve negative outcomes. Some are quite complex – such as the fisherfolk superstition from up my way that crossing a minister on the way to  your boat was unlucky. Some provide ways of making up for spilling salt – the aforementioned fisherfolk could avoid the bad luck put upon them by a man of God by finding a black cat to cross their path for instance. Certainly there is an argument that superstitions that have some fixing mechanism (a way to overcome the bad luck and restore control over the situation) akin to throwing salt over your shoulder could be seen as similar to Obsessive and compulsive behaviours. ..

However a, highly scientific, survey conducted to coincide with the launch of Sky Real lives (home of such fantastic programming as the Derek Acorah show and Gloria Hunnifords’

quest to “get to the truth of” Angels (So clearly a survey worthy of note!)) listed Britain’s top ten superstitions modern and traditional:

The Top 10 modern superstitions:

1. Wearing a specific or lucky item of clothing to ensure success (24%).
2. Picking numbers that mean something personally when playing the lottery (22%).
3. Looking a person in the eye when saying “cheers” and clinking glasses to avoid seven years of bad luck (21%).
4. The Three-Day Rule – never calling a girl or boy the day after meeting them, waiting a few days to arrange a date instead (17%).
5. Avoiding-a-hangover theories such as “wine before beer, oh dear, but beer before wine, all fine” (16%).
6. Turning one cigarette upside down in the packet for good luck (15%).
7. Responding to or forwarding on the email equivalent of chain letters to avoid bad luck (14%).
8. Never putting new shoes on the table (12%).
9. Painting your front door red for good luck, but not painting your front door black as it is bad luck (5%).
10. If you can Googlewhack your name (return just one response from an internet search engine query) it is good luck (4%).

If you look at them I reckon about 5 could be considered as means of avoiding bad luck. (Some of them to my mind don’t qualify as superstitions but never mind). However in the case of traditional superstitions, again by my reckoning, seven of these involve avoiding bad luck.

The Top 10 traditional superstitions:

1. Touching wood to avoid tempting fate or bad luck (40%).
2. Never opening an umbrella indoors (20%).
3. Never walking under a ladder (17%).
4. Believing horoscopes will reveal the truth about your love life, career and money matters (15%).
5. Forbidding the groom to see the bride in her wedding dress before their wedding (14%).
6. Believing if bird droppings fall on you it is good luck (12%).
7. Believing that if you break a mirror it is seven years’ bad luck (11%).
8. If you let a black cat cross your path it is bad luck (10%).
9. Throwing salt over your left shoulder for good luck (9%).
10. Avoiding the number 13 – it is bad luck (7%).

All of which leads me to the rather glib conclusion that we really should operationalise or define superstition before we run around linking it with OCD. Especially as linking run of the mill irrational or wooly thinking, which doesn’t appear to be all that pernicious, with potentially serious mental health issues. Whether that serves more to make light of OCD or is perhaps intended as a way of saying “blimey those woo-sters their a bit mental aren’t they?” (or I am mibbes being a bit oversensitive and reading too much into these types of comment) is up for discussion…

Dr David Luke (psychologist, parapsychologist) did a talk for Edinburgh Sceptics in the pub (notable for someone heckling with “Read Karl Popper” when they probably meant Thomas Kuhn) on the psychology of superstition which, if nothing else, proved how difficult it was to pin down a definition of superstition. My current favourite definition is given below:

A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behaviour in some magical or mystical way.

Which I think leaves room for both positive and negative superstitions to come to the fore. Consequently it perhaps leaves little room for the comparison between holding superstitious beliefs and OCD. The diagnostic criteria for OCD is given below, with the key points that might relate to superstitious belief mostly concern obsessions, although compulsions could be seen as relating to actions taken to avoid the negative effects of superstitions:

Diagnostic Criteria (DSM-IV 300.3 OCD)
A. The Person Exhibits Either Obsessions or Compulsions
Obsessions are indicated by the following:

  • The person has recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress
  • The thoughts, impulses, or images are not simply excessive worries about real-life problems
  • The person attempts to ignore or suppress such thoughts, impulses, or images or to neutralize them with some other thought or action
  • The person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses, or images are a product of his or her own mind (not imposed from without as in thought insertion)

Compulsions are indicated by the following:

  • The person has repetitive behaviors (eg, hand washing, ordering, checking) or mental acts (eg, praying, counting, repeating words silently) that the person feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly
  • The behaviors or mental acts are aimed at preventing some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are designed to neutralize or prevent or are clearly excessive.

B. At some point during the course of the disorder, the person has recognized that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable. (Note: this does not apply to children.)
C. The obsessions or compulsions cause marked distress, are time consuming (take more than 1 hour a day), or significantly interfere with the person’s normal routine, occupational/academic functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.

D. If another axis I disorder is present, the content of the obsessions or compulsions is not restricted to it (e.g., preoccupation with drugs in the presence of a substance abuse disorder).
E. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiologic effects of a substance (e.g., drug abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition.

I really think it’s hard to look at such criteria and say that it seems likely that superstition and OCD may be related. There has however been a little research done to see if they indeed are.

Claudio Sica, Caterina Novatra and Ezio Sanquio in 2002 compared 258 students who scored as either high and low on superstition. They scored them on established OCD measures and controlled for anxiety and depression comparing scores of overestimation of threat, impaired mental control, contamination and worry. They found that the measures of overestimation of threat and perfectionism were correlated with measures of superstition (Overestimation of threat positively and perfectionism negatively). From this they concluded that superstitiousness may be predisposing for general rather than specific psychopathology and that cultural factors may moderate the relation between superstitiousness and psychopathology. That is to say that superstition could indicate a mental health issue but ultimately if it does or not is, by and large, determined by the culture the individual inhabits.

Barbara Zebb and Michael Moore (probably not that one) in 2003 also explored potential links between OCD and superstition using a sample of undergraduates they compared measures associated with OCD, anxiety disorders and superstition.Their results indicated that there was a gender difference in superstition with women being more likely to be superstitious then men but no compelling link between the OCD, anxiety disorders or superstition.

The last piece of relevent research I want to mention is a study conducted by Danielle Einstein (no idea if she is a relation or not) and Ross Menzies in 2004) where several scales measuring magical ideation, behaviours and beliefs and Thought action fusion were compared with measures of OCD. The Magic ideation scale was closely related with OCD which suggests that magical thinking, non scientific causal reasoning, may underpin any links between superstition and OCD.

I only managed to find three research papers that explicitly linked superstition and OCD (I may not in fairness have looked as rigorously as I could of) which is not a great body of work to come to a compelling conclusion (although some meta-analyses and systematic reviews have got by with less)… So I think I will stick with my initial prejudices and opinions and conclude that while there may be similarities between superstitious beliefs and the symptoms of OCD the mechanism that produces superstitions is probably not the same as that which produces obsessions and compulsions.

Any other thoughts?

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