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superstitionWhy was my mother superstitious? Why is anyone? Turns out my amiable, warm-hearted mother was not alone: most people harbor some superstitious beliefs and act on them – just in case they’re true. A CBS News poll found that 51% of all Americans knock on wood for good luck. That’s more than give credence to the theory of evolution!

Psychologist Stuart Vyse describes superstition as, “A belief or an action inconsistent with science… aimed at bringing about good luck, or avoiding bad luck…. Superstitions offer a feeling of control where control isn’t possible.” My mother grew up poor – with little agency to affect her fate. Maybe that, plus the absence of religious dogma in her life, explains her faith in superstition.

Most children practice magical thinking. Remember how we helped Tinkerbell pull through, clapping our hands and shouting “I believe in fairies?” In fact, the belief itself actually does make a difference. Scientists allowed some students who thought their lucky charm would make a difference to keep their charm with them during a test, requiring others to surrender their talismans at the door. The students who kept their charms achieved higher scores.

We’re in good company if we practice some of these not-based-on-fact rituals. The prevailing attitude seems to be: Can’t hurt.

Social psychologist Tom Gilovich notes that superstitions have the power to overcome your rational brain. And guess what? He says our brains are wired to believe “this nonsense,” to find cause and effect where there is none. The next time you knock on wood because you just said something like, “I hope Amy gets into Yale,” and don’t want to jinx it, don’t be embarrassed – it’s human nature.

My mother had no compunctions about practicing her long list of superstitious beliefs, and teaching me to follow her lead. “Say “bread and butter,” she’d tell me, if we were walking and a pedestrian or a lamppost came between us. Unless each of us uttered those words right away, she feared that something dire might happen. Recently when my daughter and I were walking, she went one way around a fire hydrant, I went the other. “Say bread and butter,” I reminded her. She replied, “I don’t do that anymore.” Okay, I thought, she’s a grown woman; but she’ll think twice each time she chooses not to do that.

“It was meant to be,” Mom pronounced, because my fiancé’s home address added up to 12. She’d figured out that both her childhood home address and my Dad’s added to that magic number, as did the home I was born in, the house in the suburbs where I grew up, and the home where my husband and I raised our family. When our first baby’s birth was imminent, I took heart as we entered delivery room No. 12; the baby was born on July 12.

Another custom Mom passed down was to say “Ptooey” (pretend to spit) and bite your tongue if you say something you wouldn’t want to happen, like, “I hope he chokes on those words.” Speaking of the old world, most superstitions come from medieval times. Some stem from religion, others folklore. Isn’t it remarkable that they’re widely practiced in the 21st century? Still today, a sneeze invariably elicits “Bless You” or “Gesundheit” (to your health), even from strangers. This centuries-old custom originated to ward off demons entering the body when the person sneezing couldn’t fend for themselves. So Mom was far from alone when she responded without thinking to everyday situations – like dropping a fork (company’s coming) or driving past a cemetery (hold your breath or you’ll breathe in someone’s spirit).

My kids know what I’m thinking when I hear grim news: bad things come in threes. Mom not only believed that, but presented case after case to prove the point. For some “take it on faith” reason it’s particularly true when celebrities are involved. So when a legendary film star dies, I’m expecting to see two new star-studded obituaries within days. Superstition experts suggest that three establishes a pattern: Something happening once could be random, twice could be chance, but three times means something. What is that something? Well, it’s nothing good, I can tell you that.

“You have to go out the same door you entered.” That’s one of Mom’s “don’t tempt fate” beliefs that comes up often. Sometimes that’s not possible – Home Depot isn’t set up that way. But given a choice, I use the same door in both directions. Why? Color me clueless. But each time I follow one of these rituals, Mom’s with me again, watching out for my welfare.

Ever wonder why a heads up penny is lucky? Well, if you find a penny that’s heads up…Oh, I’ll tell you later, just spotted the evening star – “Star light, star bright….”

 

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Knock On Wood: Why We Are Superstitious was last modified: by