When superstitions Become Compulsions

When superstitions Become Compulsions

by Sally Hartsfield, PhD

Are you superstitious? My dog is.  When she hears the can opener, she runs down the hall, turns around twice, and runs back again.  She learned this behavior in the same way that all superstitions begin.  When we behave a certain way, something good or bad happens. Whether it is a conscious decision or not, we then link the two actions together: When we do A, B occurs.  Therefore, a superstition is a situation in which one action is always followed by a certain outcome; a response generates another response.

You probably think you are not at all superstitious.  None of that “Ides of March,” Friday the 13th, broken mirror, or knocking on wood for you.  Ah, but you may have unknowingly connected certain actions to positive or negative outcomes.  How about, “If I can just make that next red light, it means I’m getting that raise I’ve been hoping for.”  Or, you try not to think of something you are hoping for lest you jinx your chances.

Often what connects such a behavior and its unrelated outcome is a feeling of anxiety. Baseball players are notoriously superstitious.  Atlanta Braves Pitcher John Rocker’s excessive straightening of his cap, wiping his brow, and twisting his head became so intense that they interfered with his ability to throw the ball, and he lost his job.  Another well-known baseball player needs his locker arranged in a certain way before he even enters the locker room.  His locker must contain four pairs of socks, two black and two white, arranged in alternating colors.  Two packs of Wrigley Juicy Fruit gum, one pack opened with one stick protruding and the other pack still sealed, must await him.  If the shelf of his locker is not as described, he cannot go onto the field.

Superstitions, when they persist over time and interfere with a person’s life, are called compulsions — irrational behaviors that persist regardless of evidence that they are not grounded in reality.  Some people cannot cross bridges despite their intellectual understanding that it is highly unlikely that the bridge will collapse just as they drive onto it; they are compelled to drive miles out of their way to avoid an anxiety-producing crossing.  Image-makers work hard to ensure that anxious political candidates do not repetitively shrug their shoulders, touch their ties or twitch their eyebrows nervously when they appear on television.  Lady Macbeth had to wash her hands repeatedly to remove an imaginary spot of blood.  People who suffer from the need to perform compulsive actions are usually extremely embarrassed and afraid that someone will find out.  Their concern about this simply increases the anxiety they feel when they try to forego the ritual behavior.  It is difficult to convince such individuals that their behavior is normal (that is, it was learned just as we learn anything else), because they view it as anything but.

Compulsions are sometimes accompanied by obsessive thoughts.  Most of us toss around the words “obsessive” and “compulsive” without thinking much about their actual meaning.  But such disorders — those that meet the psychological criteria for an “obsessive compulsive” diagnosis — can cripple patients.  Sometimes young mothers are horrified when the thought of harming their child occurs to them.  If these women were truly capable of hurting their baby, they would not be so worried.  But the more they try to put these thoughts out of their minds, the more frequently the thoughts occur until such a woman is afraid to pick up or touch her baby.  The saddest part of this is that such women are often so ashamed of their thoughts that they would never confide in their closest friends, who could reassure them that their thoughts are far from uncommon. 

Compulsions take other, more easily recognizable forms.  You may know someone who is a compulsive talker.  The origin of this behavior usually lies in an unconscious fear that, should they stop talking; the listener will say things that are critical or painful to them.  Thus, they are compelled to continue speaking, even when it is clear that the audience is drifting away, fed up or bored.  In fact, the greater the negative feedback from the audience (i.e., no one interrupts the speaker), the greater the compulsion to keep talking.  A compulsive straightener may feel the need to continually neaten the desk, the kitchen or other parts of their environment.  This person’s family members cannot put down a glass or cup without it being picked up and washed.  You may also have met the compulsive exerciser.  Several runs or walks a week is too little, and even exercising every day may be insufficient to reduce the exerciser’s anxiety level.  Thus, the circle begins until hours of the day that should be devoted to work or interaction with friends are instead devoted to exercise.  The person becomes isolated, the level of anxiety rises and he or she is compelled to exercise even more.

Some people are compulsive dieters, and this doesn’t refer to someone who goes from the South Beach to the grapefruit diet without consequence.   Men and women obsessed with their weight — and it is increasingly easy to fall into this habit, given the media attention dieting receives — can seriously damage their health when they resort to extreme measures.  Everyone has heard or read of anorexia and bulimia, eating disorders that manifest themselves in intense preoccupation with food and body size.    Patients suffering from these disorders are unable to stop themselves.  Any variation from their “superstitious” attitudes about and actions toward food causes them extreme anxiety, leading to greater certainty in their minds about which foods are “good” or “bad” and whether or not they are allowed to have them.  As in other compulsive behaviors, the sufferers are intensely ashamed of their actions to the extent that they go to great lengths to prevent anyone from knowing.

Compulsive behaviors persist because they operate like a slot machine.  If you put a dollar in a soda machine and nothing comes out, you are not going to put another dollar in.  But if you put a dollar in a slot machine, there is always a chance that you will be rewarded.  That type of behavior is called “variable reinforcement” and is extremely hard to stop.  A laboratory rat will keep pressing a lever to the point of exhaustion if the rat is on a feeding schedule similar to a slot machine.  At least once, perhaps far in the past, an act was rewarded: The rat got food; the person’s anxiety was relieved.

If you or someone close to you suffers from any of the above-described disorders, psychiatric treatment sessions can help.  Compulsive behaviors can cost a person his or her job and alienate family and friends.  Some obsessions can be life-threatening, and intervention in these cases must be made early.  Treatment involves lowering the patient’s level of anxiety while, at the same time, teaching new behaviors that compete with the inappropriate ones formerly practiced.  For the more serious eating disorders, hospitalization may be required, and the support of family and friends in these cases is vital to the success of the treatment.

At their most basic level, superstitions are benign.  My dog runs up and down the hall because when she first did so, she was fed.  But if her actions became distorted — if she had to run up and down five or six times or more — I would have to take steps to intervene.  Fortunately, once around seems to be enough for her.

Hartsfield, S. (2008, March). The Health Journal. Retrieved December 24, 2012, from http://www.thehealthjournals.com/archives/2008/WHJ_Mar_2008.pdf



About MzMaDeA

I am but a single bud among my many roses/thorns/diamonds.

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