research digest

Excerpted from Capital Ideas 

The Rituals of Avoiding a Jinx

risenIf you've ever pondered the seeming randomness of some of the superstitions humans use to ward off bad luck - knocking on wood or throwing salt over one's shoulder - new research suggests that these actions may not be so random after all.

Jane L. Risen, associate professor of behavioral science, Yan Zhang of the National University of Singapore, and Booth PhD student Christine Hosey set out to determine whether motions like knocking on wood, throwing salt, or spitting make people feel protected from a perceived jinx because they all involve gestures that push away from the body - also known as avoidant actions. Their research, "Reversing One's Fortune by Pushing Away Bad Luck," was published in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Because pushing something away from the self is associated with avoiding undesired stimuli, and because engaging in a bodily movement leads people to simulate the thoughts and feelings associated with the movement, the researchers hypothesized that exerting force away from the self may lead people to simulate the experience of having avoided bad fortune.

And this is exactly what they find in a series of five experiments. In one of the experiments, the researchers had participants envision a frightening scenario, such as a car accident on a snowy road, and then asked them what they thought the odds were of something like that happening to them. Some of the participants were prompted to "tempt fate" by reading a script stating something along the lines of, "No way. Nobody I know would get into a bad car accident. It's just not possible." Then they were told either to knock down on the top of the table at which they were sitting, or knock up on its underside (a control group didn't knock at all). Tellingly, the people who knocked down - thereby motioning away from their bodies - rated the likelihood of getting into a car crash as much less likely than people who had knocked up or who hadn't knocked at all. 
- Alice G. Walton

Photo by Chris Lake

Last Updated 2/21/14