As Halloween approaches, black cats and broken mirrors can take on a whole new kind of meaning. But if you’re feeling a little more jittery about jinxes and superstitions than usual, don’t worry, it’s not just you. Just about every part of the world has superstitious beliefs, and though they’re different from country to country, they’re often deeply ingrained in our cultures and psyches.
One thing most of us seem to have in common is the belief that it’s possible not only to bring on good luck, but also to reverse bad luck. This is especially true if we think we’ve brought it on ourselves (think walking under a ladder or tempting fate by calling a positive outcome too soon). What’s even more intriguing is that the physical rituals we develop to “undo” jinxes also seem to have a common denominator.
Jane L. Risen, an associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth, and her team noticed an underlying link between the superstitious behaviors people use to “push away” bad luck. Spitting, knocking on wood, throwing salt over our shoulders all seem to have one thing in common—they all involve movements away from the body.
Risen and her team wagered that what’s central to these behaviors is this pushing away effort—the physical action mirrors exactly what we’re trying to do psychologically. To test this idea, the team had a group of college kids “tempt fate” in various ways, and then carry out physical motions, some pushing and some pulling. The participants felt that a terrible fate was much less likely to befall them if they’d motioned away from the body rather than towards it.
Our physical body seems to want to play out our mental machinations, and it does this in lots of different ways, superstition being one. Some people drum up their own superstitious practices based on what they think has worked for them in the past.
Risen says that she herself isn’t terribly superstitious, but that’s partly because she tries not to mess with fate in the first place. She cautions not to celebrate that new job before you’ve actually been offered it.