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Are superstitious people right?

A growing body of research suggests that yes, they are.
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Mark Moyes, October 11, 2013 10:53:09 AM

Dear Reader,

Chances are, you know someone like this. You’re walking down the street together, and they spot a black cat a hundred meters ahead, and all of a sudden you have to turn around and walk four blocks out of your way to avoid it. Or you’re out for dinner, and they don’t just mime throwing salt over their shoulder–they actually throw salt over their shoulder (much to the chagrin of the people behind them).

Maybe you chuckle softly to yourself as they desperately search for some wood to knock on every time you say something pessimistic. After all, it seems a little obsessive compulsive, doesn’t it? Or maybe just simple?

Well, the laugh’s on you, chuckles.

A growing body of research suggests that a little superstition can be a good thing–and more importantly, can be used to your advantage.

First, let’s talk numbers. Roughly half of Americans admit to being at least a little superstitious. Somewhere around 20 million report feelings of fear related to Friday the 13th–and we’re not talking about the movie. Thirteen percent (ironically) would feel uncomfortable sleeping on the 13th floor of a hotel. On this side of the border, the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill recently banned the number four on buildings, because it’s unlucky in Chinese culture (it’s a homonym for ‘death’).

Related: Flight 666 to HEL leaves Friday the 13th

It’s more pervasive than you’d imagine. Researcher Gabriele Lepori of Cophenhagen Business School poured over 80 years worth of stock market data from around the world and found that in the days following an eclipse–historically bad omens–there was a small but noticeable dip. She concluded not that eclipses are bad luck for stock returns, but that superstition was affecting people’s buying and selling habits.

“Well, sure,” you say, “but isn’t that a bad thing? Aren’t people who would let the position of the sun relative to the moon dictate how they spend large sums of money just a little bit cuckoo?”

Well, maybe not cuckoo, but there is that famous pigeon experiment. Psychologist B.F. Skinner studied a group of pigeons in a pen where a food dispenser was activated at regularly timed intervals. He noticed that if the pigeons were doing something unrelated at the time–cocking their head, for example–some would repeat these random actions, hoping that the food would appear. In other words, superstition may be creating cause and effect connections where there was merely coincidence.

But coincidence or not, one thing’s for sure: The superstitious are not crazy. Superstition is not linked to mental illness, OCD or other behavioral disorders. “Scales measuring magical ideation [magical thinking] sometimes include items that are similar to superstition, and high scores on the scale are correlated with subsequent mental illness. However, magical ideation includes many other concepts (hearing voices) that are not related to superstition. So, at this point, no clear connection between the two has been established,” Stuart Vyse, professor of psychology at Connecticut College, told LiveScience.

In fact, superstitions are considered de-rigeur among athletes–and possibly to their benefit. In their 2010 paper “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” researchers Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler argued that it can actually help people perform better. In one study, twenty eight students were asked to putt a golf ball; if they were told beforehand that the ball was “lucky”, they did better. In another experiment, students were asked to solve a series of difficult word pattern problems. Those who were allowed to bring lucky charms with them solved more.

Related: The top 10 superstitions

The interesting thing is that they didn’t solve them faster–but they kept working at them longer. They didn’t give up as quickly. So the charms didn’t make them smarter or luckier, but increased the subjects’ confidence, which made them more persistent.

It gets stranger still. A recent New York Times article detailed soon-to-be-published research from the University of Chicago that suggests that the physical act of knocking on wood may in itself be psychologically calming. In the study, participants were asked to say something that could “jinx” them–in this case, they were asked to say out loud, “I will not definitely not get into a car accident this winter.” Talk about tempting fate: Participants immediately reported higher rates of anxiety about getting into a car accident.

But here’s where it gets strange: They were then asked to knock downwards on a wooden table. The action seemed to reverse the effects of the jinx.

The researchers hypothesize that knocking on wood, throwing salt and spitting are all “pushing actions”, and they actually help the mind push anxieties away. They did more tests, where participants were asked to reach under the table and knock upwards on the underside, back towards themselves (anxieties about car crashes remained) and throw a ball away from them (anxieties soothed!).

In other words, according to the study, throwing a ball away from you may actually make you less anxious.

Of course, hanging a horseshoe above your door may also make you less anxious. Lucky balls may help you sink more putts. The distinction between cause and coincidence seems less relevant when you’re winning.

And hey, who knows? One day, we might read a study that says cocking your head increases your chances of getting pigeon food.

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