Sense and Superstition


SUPERSTITIOUS people do all sorts of puzzling things. But it’s not just the superstitious who knock on wood. From time to time, we all rap our knuckles on a nearby table if we happen to let fate-tempting words slip out. “The cancer is in remission, knock on wood,” we might say.

In fact, it’s so common we often don’t think about it. But it’s worth asking: why do people who do not believe that knocking on wood has an effect on the world often do it anyway? Because it works.

No, knocking on wood won’t change what happens. The cancer is no more likely to stay in remission one way or the other. But knocking on wood does affect our beliefs, and that’s almost as important.

Research finds that people, superstitious or not, tend to believe that negative outcomes are more likely after they “jinx” themselves. Boast that you’ve been driving for 20 years without an accident, and your concern about your drive home that evening rises. The superstitious may tell you that your concern is well founded because the universe is bound to punish your hubris. Psychological research has a less magical explanation: boasting about being accident-free makes the thought of getting into an accident jump to mind and, once there, that thought makes you worry.

That makes sense intuitively. What’s less intuitive is how a simple physical act, like knocking on wood, can alleviate that concern.

Written By: Jane L. Risen and A. David Nussbaum
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  1. I have what may look like superstitious routines but in reality are just practical habits when it comes to, for instance, sports. I always dress a certain way for hockey: left skate always goes on before the right, etc. Time is of the essence. In the military I would imagine there are known ways to be most efficient at assembling and cleaning a weapon, etc. Likewise getting prepared for a game.

    I do not think, however, that being habitual gives me magic powers. That said, I can’t speak for goalies. They are among the most superstitious people in sports I’ve ever encountered. :-j Anyway, I think a lot of superstitions could be like that, a practical meaning behind the so-called magic.


  2. Consider not walking on sidewalk cracks. You get into the habit as a child, when other children act in horror at your attempted murder of your mother. Some superstitions should be looked at from the perspective of OCD tics, not irrational beliefs.

    • In reply to #4 by Roedy:

      Consider not walking on sidewalk cracks. You get into the habit as a child, when other children act in horror at your attempted murder of your mother. Some superstitions should be looked at from the perspective of OCD tics, not irrational beliefs.

      I have Asperger’s syndrome and – very typically – need the support of several clear routines (doing routine chores in fours, for instance. If I wipe a table top with a cloth, I have to wipe it four, eight or sixteen times – though not twelve – ??). Doing it just (say) six times sets up a level of anxiety that I can do without. Likewise if I don’t put on my socks before my trousers or put milk in the cup before the tea (though the latter doesn’t worry me at all if someone else does it).

      This sort of thing is a well attested symptom, and although I can try to ignore it it’s not often successful.

      The point I’m trying to make is that not abiding by these seemingly inconsequential routines sends my blood pressure rocketing and I get very near to hyperventilating – genuinely physical manifestations – and yet I am a mature adult who for 30 years held a very senior position in a government department.

      When I was a child I might have put this down to superstition, though I doubt it. But since I’ve been an adult I’ve never thought of it as such – even though I’d no idea I had Asperger’s at the time. They were just little things I could control that helped me get through life with the minimum of anxiety.

  3. I swear i’ll kill the next person who says bless you when someone sneezes. Not because Of my atheism but because it is such a worn out bloody cliche. grrr my pet hate.
    As roedy says it’s an annoying ocd tic.

  4. Most people observe the outward manifestations of superstitious behaviour in an ironic, humorous way. People, in general (in developed countries at least), don’t believe in medieval nonsense. No one really expects their iPhone to recharge just because they will it to.

  5. Many of us need a routine to daily life. This is not necessarily superstitious it is a manifestation of cognition. We have short term memories which cause us to concentrate our efforts on small data sets. The consequence is that the world seems much more orderly than it really is, events seem more salient and this propels our explorative tendencies. It doesn’t seem odd to me that in the transaction between consciousness and reality we might also strive to create orderliness in our lives that fit our perceptions. At times these behaviours appear irrational and hence are termed superstitious behaviour. From what I understand psychologists have demonstrated this phenomena in animals.

  6. In reply to #8 by Billy Joe:

    “If you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer- superstition ain’t the way”Thank you Stevie!

    A truly wonderful man, musician and lyricist, but he is deeply inflicted with religion and therefore superstitious; in his DVD “Stevie Wonder Live at Last” he repeatedly sings “God is great”, which despite the concert being stupendous jars with me.

  7. Apparantly, the reason people started saying bless you when someone sneezed was that it was thought that when you did so demons flew out of your mouth.

    There was a grain of truth in that belief since sneezes are in response to irritation of the mucous membrane caused by microbes which need to find a new host because the immune system is getting the better of them inside their current one; I think I’m right in saying. Doubtless if I’m not someone will correct me and I will have learnt something.

    Two essentials of life: knowledge and wine.

  8. I try not to conflate custom or ritual with superstition. I’ll verbally ‘wish’ someone good luck — not because I believe that doing so will affect material fact, but merely as shorthand for “I empathize with you and hope for a good outcome”. One fits seamlessly into the history-laden local language and the other does not. I know of people here in the US Southeast who are not at all theists, yet they go through the bowed head, “God is Great..” ritual at meals. It meshes unnoticeably with this particular culture, while it would not in others — just as intoning “I am pleased that we have again obtained nutrition..” would be jarring here.

  9. *In reply to #7 by Pabmusic *

    If I wipe a table top with a cloth, I have to wipe it four, eight or sixteen times – though not twelve – ??)

    May I venture that perhaps you don’t wipe 12 times because 12 includes a factor of 3, which goes against the nice clean even factors of the other numbers. 4, 8 and 16 are all powers of two.

  10. I think a lot of the “superstitions” mentioned here have different causes. Some originate from practical reasons and some are pure psychology.

    Milk in the cup first? I thought this originated when tea was first drunk in Europe in bone china cups which cracked if hot tea was poured in first?

    Touching wood? I thought this originated from early animist beliefs in the good spirits in trees but has moved on now to the point when people touch chipboard or even wood effect vinyl. This is pure psychology and not necessarily a belief in superstition.

    People who have panic attacks are advised to use methods to distract the brain from concentrating on the panic to defuse it. I don’t believe when I am counting to ten and adding flower names to each number before starting again at one that I am doing it for luck. I know I am doing it to trick my brain into forgetting the panic. It really works and I know why it works, and it isn’t magic.

    Likewise touching wood removes that thought from your brain and enables you to defuse that worrying thought. Worrying thoughts after all are far more debilitating than the chances of consequences of those worrying things that will probably never happen.

    Avoiding the cracks in pavements? A natural instinct to avoid cracked ground that may be unstable and may swallow you up?

    Socks before trousers? Just makes better sense.

    • In reply to #20 by Aber ration:

      I think a lot of the “superstitions” mentioned here have different causes.

      I agree absolutely. “you may have misunderstood my post, though (no. 7). I was not suggesting that I’m superstitious. For those with Asperger’s these activities may not be superstitious at all, since our worlds are very ‘literal’. We are among the least likely to succumb to superstition. I was pointing out that activities that can be regarded as being superstitious may not be, and indeed may have a positive effect.

    • In reply to #22 by CdnMacAtheist:

      Not only have I never had any religion, or even subconscious religious thoughts, but I have no superstitious inclinations, fears or habits – I guess I’m just really lucky…. 😎

      I’m the same! Very lucky! Must be destiny :)

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