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A little superstitious? You're not alone

No matter how silly or serious, superstitions can affect decisions and behavior in daily life, and such activities as sports and gambling. It's only human to look for connections between events where none exist.

October 25, 2010|By Karen Ravn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Polls consistently show that about half of all Americans hold some superstitious beliefs.
Polls consistently show that about half of all Americans hold some superstitious… (Alex Nabaum / For the Los…)

How would you like to see an honest-to-goodness witch flying by your place at midnight this Halloween? Just put your clothes on inside out, start walking around backward, and it'll happen.

At least that's how the superstition goes. If you believe in that sort of thing.

And there's a good chance that you do. Polls consistently show that about half of all Americans hold some superstitious beliefs (although not necessarily the fly-by one).

Superstitions are claims of a particular type — namely, that if X happens, then Y will happen, where (and this part is crucial) by all the rules of science and logic and simple common sense, X and Y have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. In short, "by definition, superstitious beliefs are irrational beliefs," says Duane McClearn, a professor of psychology at Elon University in Elon, N.C.

Then why are they so widespread? Can 150 million people all be knocking on the wood of the wrong tree?

It's a question that has long intrigued researchers. Many have looked — with mixed success — for links between superstitious beliefs and various types of cognitive weakness or psychological maladjustment in the people who hold them. Others have suggested that the answer lies with an attribute all human beings share: a strong drive to make causal connections. It's a drive that has led to civilization-altering discoveries, such as fire, electricity and the remote ("If I push this button, the channel will change, and I won't even have to move"). But when the drive goes into overdrive, so to speak, crazy superstitions can ensue.

Scientists have discovered a lot about why people are so prone to holding unscientific beliefs. So remember: What you don't know about superstition may come back to haunt you.

Superstitions abound around just about everything — from unlucky black cats to lucky orange socks. Men have them. Women have them. And if parents have them, their kids may not be far behind. "Children learn much from hearsay from adults," says Terry Au, professor of psychology at the University of Hong Kong.

In one experiment in her lab, a researcher showed children (3 to 5 years old) a "memory stone" from Thailand and told them, "If you rub your head with the stone when you study, it improves your memory." Then the researcher played a memory game with the children. "And sure enough," Au says, "the little ones started rubbing their heads with the stone."

During changeovers in his matches, Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 tennis player in the world, reportedly takes one sip from each of two water bottles — one chilled, one not, then lines them up just so with the labels facing the side he will be serving from. Habit? Ritual? Superstition? Whatever the reason for Nadal's actions, a number of studies have found that many athletes engage in behaviors that look pretty superstitious to others, e.g., carrying a lucky charm, repeating a secret phrase, wearing the same clothes over and over during a winning streak.

And in a 2004 study, McClearn found that in non-athletes, merely having an interest in sports was correlated with a belief in sports-related superstition.

In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, W. Scott Wood and Maria Clapham, psychology professors at Drake University in Des Moines, found that gamblers are more likely to be superstitious than non-gamblers. On the other hand, superstition does not seem to be to blame for losing the farm: Big-bucks bettors were no more superstitious than those who stuck to smaller stakes.

Superstition is rife on college campuses too, a number of studies have shown. In one published in 2004, 275 students were asked to imagine they had three lottery tickets: One contained their "lucky numbers," another contained computer-generated numbers and the third had been found blowing down the street.

When given the option of keeping or giving away any of the three tickets, students were most likely to keep the one with their lucky numbers and most likely to give away the one with computer-generated numbers. And when given the option to exchange the ticket with their lucky numbers for two tickets with computer-generated numbers — and thus doubling their chances of winning — nearly half of the students still elected to keep the ticket with their lucky numbers.

What's going on?

"Most believers in miracles, monsters, and mysteries are not hoaxers, flimflam artists, or lunatics. Most are normal people whose normal thinking has gone wrong in some way," writes Michael Shermer, the executive director of the Skeptics Society in Altadena, in his 1997 book "Why People Believe Weird Things." In explaining this wrong thinking, Shermer points to our human predilection for finding connections, for figuring out what causes what. That trait is ubiquitous — and very important. But it's not infallible.

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