Facts So Romantic

The Rituals That Ward Off Bad Luck Aren’t Arbitrary

Launch Ritual: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a tradition of eating peanuts during big, risky spacecraft events, such as Mars rover landings. Photograph by Kevin Baird / Flickr

For the last two years of his baseball career, George Gmelch didn’t eat pancakes. Playing in the Detroit Tigers minor league system in the 1960s, two disappointing post-pancake games were enough to make him swear off hot cakes altogether. That wasn’t the only superstition he adopted. “Somehow, I decided that holding the ball during the national anthem gave me bad luck,” recalls Gmelch, who was a first baseman. “From that point on, for the rest of that season and maybe beyond that, when the ball came to me I would quickly toss it so that I wouldn’t have it in my glove or my hand.”

Gmelch, now an anthropologist at the University of San Francisco, knows that taboos from his baseball days were not necessarily rooted in reason—no more so than “lucky” jerseys or certain “charmed” objects people might carry are. Looking back on that time, Gmelch says his rationale was: “My following this ritual gives me confidence that I’m going to play better.”

Otherwise reasonable people enact all kinds of rituals to promote good luck or cast off the bad, especially in situations of uncertainty. Three different Facebook friends of mine say they touch the outsides of the airplanes they are boarding before takeoff. Chimney sweeps are considered good luck in Germany, and another former colleague of mine would try to touch them when she was a girl growing up there. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (full disclosure: I am employed there) has a tradition of eating peanuts during big, risky spacecraft events, such as Mars rover landings.

In anthropology, when there’s no empirical connection between acts and their desired outcomes, “We call this stuff ‘magic,’” Gmelch said. A small but growing number of social science studies have looked at the underlying psychological mechanisms behind luck-related rituals. They have the usual caveats of using small numbers of participants—often undergraduates—and drawing associations rather than causal relationships. But they raise excellent questions: To what extent can rituals change our outlook on luck? Are they helpful? If so, how and why?

For anyone prone to jinx-related anxiety, Risen’s studies may be squirm-worthy.

A social science-theme related to luck rituals is “embodied cognition”—how bodily experiences inform the way we think. Jane Risen, a behavioral scientist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, got interested in this topic because in cross-cultural comparisons, rituals involving an action directed away from the body seem to be associated with undoing bad luck: Knocking on wood, spitting, throwing salt over a shoulder—to name a few. Gmelch’s ritual of getting rid of the ball during the national anthem could be related.

For anyone prone to jinx-related anxiety, Risen’s studies may be squirm-worthy. For each participant, an experimenter engaged in a scripted conversation. It began with small talk, and then took this turn: “A friend of mine recently got into a car accident ... it got me thinking about how dangerous it can be on the road, especially when the snow starts to fall. Do you think that there is a possibility that you or someone close to you will get into a horrible car accident this winter?” Participants in the control group were given a list of three neutral response choices, while participants in the “tempting fate” condition had to read a “jinx” sentence, whether or not they believed it, saying that there was no way this could happen to anyone they knew.

People who made the “jinxed” statement, on average, later said it was more likely that they or someone they know would get into a terrible car accident, compared to the control group. But in another experimental condition, those who “jinxed” themselves were told to knock their knuckles on the table, which happened to be made of wood. “Jinxed” participants who knocked tended to rate a car accident as less likely than those who were not given the option to knock.

“They’re no longer extra worried about getting into a car accident. If they knock down on the table, that bad feeling goes away,” said Risen. “There’s very little cost to knocking, and it does seem to affect people’s beliefs about things.”

The direction of knocking wasn’t arbitrary, researchers found. When people were directed to knock the underside of the table, toward their own bodies, they tended to answer the car-accident question as though the jinx were still in place. This effect held up in a different experiment, in which people were directed to either throw or hold a ball before rating the likelihood of bad events. Researchers also found that these pushing, distancing actions were associated with people having a less clear mental image of the bad outcome in question.

You may recall the line, “Out, damn’d spot!” from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (a name considered bad luck to utter in a theater). Lady Macbeth, having collaborated with her husband in the murder of King Duncan, laments the difficulty of washing bloodstains off her hands—a metaphor for her unclean conscience. Now, there is experimental evidence that the act of hand-washing may change a person’s outlook about luck. Like the knocking of wood or throwing a ball in the previous examples, washing your hands is “a way of distancing yourself, a way of separating yourself from previous events,” said Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“Luck and superstition are after-the-fact attributions we make to explain what the heck just happened.”

In Schwarz’s 2011 study, subjects played a luck-based game in which they received $100 at the beginning, for gambling. After the first round, some subjects were asked to clean their hands with antiseptic wipes or soap and water, while others were not. Then, everyone gambled in a second round with an additional $50 and could bet anywhere between $0 and $50.

Researchers found participants who did poorly in the initial round bet more money during the second round if they cleaned their hands in between, compared to those who did not wash their hands. At the same time, those who had done well in the first round bet less money in the second round if they washed their hands, compared to those who didn’t clean their hands. Those who had mixed luck tended to follow the same pattern as the bad luck group. With hand-cleansing, it’s “as if you are symbolically pressing a reset button,” Schwarz said. “Your bad luck is gone, your good luck is gone, and everything starts anew.”

Though the sample sizes weren’t huge—46 people had good luck, 32 people had bad luck, and 69 had mixed luck—the results follow the same “embodied cognition” theme as Risen’s work, and fit with many other results from Schwarz and others relating to people’s desire to clean themselves after moral transgressions. (Apparently, people who lie prefer mouthwash over hand sanitizer, as their mouths are metaphorically dirty.) Hand-washing is also a ritual in many religions, and serves a symbolic purpose as well as a practical one. “It is an evolved mechanism, in the sense that a desire to wash after things are sticking on you is really good for you—that’s how you get rid of germs and infections and so on,” Schwarz said.

Could our propensity for luck-related ritual directly affect how well we do in physical or mental tasks? The evidence is not solid. In 2010, studies led by Lysann Damisch, then a psychology researcher at the University of Cologne, in Germany, found an association between people’s performance in a variety of tasks—such as a golf-putting test, and memory and anagram games—and a luck-related saying or action. Noting that Michael Jordan (reportedly) wore his old blue University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform, researchers boldly concluded: “[T]he present findings suggest that it may have been the well-balanced combination of existing talent, hard training, and good-luck underwear that made Michael Jordan perform as well as he did.”

But more recently, a research group at Dominican University failed to replicate these findings with similar golf-based tasks, “much to our disappointment,” Tracy Caldwell, a psychology researcher and one of the co-authors, told me with a laugh. The small sample sizes of the German study may have been to blame, or the particular groups of participants, she said. Regardless, luck rituals may reduce people’s anxiety about certain situations, which can in turn have an effect on performance, but there are probably better ways to promote one’s chances of doing well in an activity, Caldwell said—like, actual preparation: “Luck and superstition are after-the-fact attributions we make to explain what the heck just happened.”

We all wish we could control and predict fate, and in the face of uncertain personal or geopolitical events, we want to hold onto things that give us comfort, even in a superstitious, irrational way. If you’re feeling nervous about 2017, go ahead: Hold your lucky charm, wear your special socks (but wash them regularly) or pat the shiniest part of your favorite statue—maybe the shoe of “John Harvard” at the eponymous campus, or the snout of “Il Porcellino” in Florence, Italy, or the testicles of the “Charging Bull” near Wall Street in New York.

It’s no substitute for going out and fulfilling your resolutions, but it could help ease fears you might have about them. Then, maybe this year won’t be so bad…knock on wood.

Elizabeth Landau is a science writer and communications specialist living in Pasadena, California. She holds an MA in journalism from Columbia University and a BA in anthropology from Princeton University. Follow her on Twitter @lizlandau

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The lead image is courtesy of Kevin Baird via Flickr.

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