‘Condition Superstition’: How Our Beliefs Shape The Brands We Buy

When trying to persuade you to purchase a particular brand or product, advertisers often attempt to create implicit superstitious associations. Research shows that while these associations may not always be blatantly obvious, they may still influence your buying habits.

Believe it or not, a large (and interesting) range of psychological literature exists on the psychology of advertising. One such article, “Conditioned Superstition”: Desire for Control and Consumer Brand Preferences,” researchers Eric J. Hamerman and Gita V. Johar explore how a person’s need for control may influence their buying habits.

“Conditioned superstitions that occur after consumers irrationally associate their purchase or consumption decisions with positive or negative outcomes,” the researchers write. “If superstition is a conscious strategy to control the environment, the prevalence of superstitious behavior should be strongly related to perceptions of, and the desire for, control.”

In other words, an individual’s need for control (NFC) is a means by which that person makes sense of their environment.

But how is this related to buying habits?

Hamerman and Johar continue: “When individuals engage in supposititious behavior—by opting for a lucky (vs. unlucky) item—we expect them to acknowledge that their preferences are strategic. If acting on a conditioned superstition is a strategic attempt to influence the environment, then superstitious behavior should facilitate an illusion of control, such that individuals make more optimistic predictions about uncertain outcomes.”

So, in a way, superstitions about specific brands can relate to a person’s belief about need for control. For example, one reason why someone might purchase one item over another may be that they believe that brand will result in a specific, positive outcome . . . even though no evidence exists to support such a notion. In addition, as noted by the authors of the above article, one’s “perceived inability to control the environment” often leads to such superstitious buying behavior.

Another noteworthy aspect of this is “priming.” Priming has been used in classical behaviorism since at least the 1920s, so for almost a century, and it remains the idea that, to put it simply, a prime or prompt (whether visual, verbal, or auditory) can elicit a specific response in a subject. In the context of buying, such priming can take place by means of an image or other such prompt. As Hamerman and Johar write: “The associative learning model explains that any cue that seems to accurately forecast an event can be considered predictive . . . .” Moreover, the authors add: “It may seem surprising that cognitive processes in people—such as logical reasoning—don’t override associative learning when the result seems specious.”

Finally, although there may remain other (sometimes good) reasons why people make the purchases that they do, need for control and the attempt to organize an uncertain environment through superstitious beliefs remains an interesting explanation.


Hamerman, E. J., and Johar, G. V. (2013). Conditioned Superstition: Desire for Control and Consumer Brand Preferences, Journal of Consumer Research, 40, 428 – 443.

Brooke Lamberti

Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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