In a lecture hall in Bristol, England, Professor Hood asked his psychology class for a volunteer to try on a blue cardigan in exchange for ten pounds. A dozen hands shot up to no one’s surprise (college students do love making money). Then, Professor Hood told his students that the sweater’s previous owner was the English serial killer and rapist Fred West. Without hesitation, all but a few hands dropped.
Fred West actually never owned the sweater, but Hood’s experiment demonstrated what many psychologists already knew: Even the most rational among us lend more credibility than we would like to think to our superstitious intuitions. “Please,” you tell yourself, “I’m not one of those people who actually thinks that walking under a ladder or opening an umbrella inside will really bring me bad luck.” Yet, you still take a few extra steps to walk around the ladder – and hey, if you’re on your way out the door, there is no reason not to wait an extra twenty seconds before closing your umbrella. Logically, you know that these superstitions are ridiculous, but you still don’t want to be the one to tempt fate.
You’re not alone in lending some credence to superstitious beliefs. In a recent Gallup pole, more than half of Americans admitted to being at least a little superstitious. And that self-report might be a gross understatement of our actual superstitious beliefs since, according to CNBC, $700 to $800 million dollars are lost every Friday the 13th because of people’s reluctance to travel or engage in large scale business deals and purchases. (An intense fear of Friday the 13th even has its own name, “paraskevidekatriaphobia.”)
Americans aren’t the only ones who are letting superstitions guide their decisions: psychologists Kramer and Block found that Taiwanese people would actually prefer to purchase a radio for 888 yuan than 777 yuan, since the number “8” is considered to be lucky. And, a few years ago, a young Chinese businessman bid the equivalent of almost 7 times the country’s per capita income for the “lucky” license plate APY888.
Before you laugh at other people’s irrationality, consider the Yale sweatshirt that you recently tucked away in the back of your drawer, pending your graduate school admissions decision. Or the fact that you shuffle past seven other pens in your bag before a Prelim, knowing that you’ll just feel better if you use your lucky pen on the test.
In general, our superstitious behaviors have one of two purposes: either they are meant to keep bad luck away or they are thought to bring about good luck. Dr. Stuart Vyse, the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, explains that phobic superstitions, like crossing the street to avoid a black cat, offer no benefit – or at least not any more than crossing the street to avoid a stray cat of any color. However, some of our superstitions actually can help us. For example, if a certain ritual before a sports competition helps reduce your anxiety and puts you in a positive mood about the game, it may really help you win. Many professional athletes intensely adhere to superstitious behaviors. Serena Williams, whose superstitious behavior includes bringing her shower sandals to the court and has even chalked up losses to messing up her routine. And rumor has it that Jason Giambi believes that wearing a lucky golden thong can turn around his performance when he is in a slump. However, it isn’t the “luck” hidden in the threads of your old Cowboys boxers (or gold thong) that is bringing you success as much as it is the combination of your increased sense of control over the situation and your reduced anxiety. Particularly when your performance is a critical component of success – like in your tennis match or on the GRE – simply believing that you have luck on your side can give you a little extra “boost.” Dr. Paul Foxman explains this as the positive placebo effect: if you think something will help you, it may do just that.
In fact, the lucky pen you were searching for in your backpack may have been well worth the search. German Psychology researcher Lysann Damish and her colleagues recently found that giving subjects a ball labeled by experimenters as “lucky” actually increased (by 33%) the number of successful 1m putts. Similarly, they found that “lucky charms” increased subjects’ performance on both memory tasks and puzzle solving. The researchers suggest that activating superstitions contributes to an increased feeling of self-efficacy.
It’s unlikely that your superstitions truly have the power you think, but if they are helping you relax and persevere – and not causing you any crazy phobic reactions – there is no harm in knocking on wood or wearing your lucky necklace. After all, if you subscribe to superstitious behavior, you’re in good company: FDR avoided travel on Friday the 13th, Jennifer Aniston always boards planes with her right foot first, Tiger Woods wears red to Sunday competitions, and Axl Rose supposedly won’t play a concert in any city that starts with the letter M, since he believes the letter is cursed (sorry, Miami!).