Beating bad luck

“Superstition” is generally a derogatory term. People don’t just say, “Gee, that’s an awesome superstition”, they tend to say things like, “That’s just superstition” as if merely by labelling something a superstition you are diminishing it. Despite this a new study has found that some of those superstitious rituals people perform to ward off bad luck may help after all.

Researchers from the University of Chicago noted that people believe negative outcomes are likely after they tempt fate or “jinx” themselves. This could take the form of saying something like, “I never lose anything” but then believing that saying that increases the likelihood that you will lose something. To counteract the jinx many people believe they can engage in a ritual to undo the bad luck. It might seem like baseless superstition to knock on wood, throw salt over your shoulder, or spit on the ground but there might be more to it than that.

In five separate experiments these researchers had people tempt fate in some way and then engage in behaviours that were superstitious (like knocking on wood) or not superstitious (like throwing a ball in the air). They found that when the action, whether it was superstitious or not superstitious, involved a gesture directed away from the person then anticipation of negative consequences was significantly reduced. However, actions directed toward the person like tossing a ball in the air towards themselves or even just holding a ball.

The researchers also found that engaging in an “avoidant action” where the force is exerted away from the body (knocking on wood, throwing salt over the shoulder, spitting on the ground, etc) resulted in a less vivid mental image of the anticipated negative event.

We all know the power of self-fulfilling prophecy; if you believe it will happen and can see it happening then you are more likely to make an event happen in your life. It seems that these avoidant actions that are the basis of superstitions may actually be wiping clean the slate of your anticipated bad event. In so doing they are reducing the likelihood of the bad event happening.

Maybe it’s not just superstition after all.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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