Superstition: The Faith We All Share
Everyone thinks superstitions are silly. But everyone seems to have one.
By John D. Spalding
I was 10 when I discovered I had the power of telepathy. I found if I concentrated hard enough, I could make my pastor pick his nose during his sermon. As pastor Jim went on about, say, how God dangles sinners like spiders over an open fire, I'd inflict a little torment myself. I'd grip the pew and stare at pastor Jim's nose, telegraphing the sensation that something resembling a dry cornflake was clinging inside his nostril. I watched the agony build in his expression, the sweat form on his brow. Finally, Pastor Jim would pop a thumb in his beak and dig, in front of the whole congregation. This was my doing. After all, I did it Sunday after Sunday.
My self-satisfaction about my unique gift was dispelled in junior high, when my science teacher told us about the work of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. In one experiment, Skinner fed hungry, caged pigeons every 15 seconds. The pigeons got the idea that whatever specific behavior they had been doing (pecking, head bobbing) just prior to the feeding had caused the food to appear, and so they did their little rituals before each new feeding. Of course, the birds' behavior had nothing to do with the arrival of the food.
That's when it hit me: I didn't have a superpower; I had a superstition. I may have wanted my pastor to stick his finger up his nose, but nothing I did caused him to. He just happened to be a nose picker. I, and the pigeons, had committed the logical fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc—Latin for "after this, therefore because of this." Skinner theorized that this is how all human superstition works. When something favorable happens to us (e.g., we win at cards), we sometimes mistakenly attribute our good fortune to something completely unrelated to it (e.g., our lucky pants).
The outcome, of course, isn't always favorable. Most of the rituals we call superstitions are, in fact, reactions to something negative. A little old lady from Dubuque may have spilled some salt the day the stock market began to slide. She assumes that it's because she failed to toss a pinch of the salt over her left shoulder and into the face of the devil. Her carelessness pushed the Dow to its four-year low.
For some, avoiding bad outcomes creates minor, even entertaining inconveniences. They are forced to shun black cats, avoid cracks in sidewalks, walk around ladders. Some world leaders, including Napoleon, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shared a morbid fear of the number 13. If 13 guests sat down to dine at a party, FDR insisted that his secretary join the table to bring the number to 14. The more the merrier.
But as Voltaire said, superstition also "sets the whole world in flames." Irrational beliefs, fueled by ignorance, fear, and hate, spawn witch-hunts, pogroms, and holy wars. Religion and superstition are easily intertwined. Televangelists prey on superstitious reasoning, because it's so abundant and easily manipulated. (On the other hand, some simply lump the two together. Thomas Jefferson, after "examining all the known superstitions of the world," did "not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature.")
Most people quickly deny they're superstitious, but will reluctantly share their bugaboos and rituals after further prodding. One friend of mine, a successful businessman, admits he has to touch the outside of his plane before he boards a flight. Another friend says if she hasn't properly carried a dinner plate to her cupboard (gingerly braced between her two index fingers, and touched as little as possible), she will tap the bottom of the plate before stacking it. My wife, who scored an 800 on the analytical section of the GRE, refuses to fall asleep or wake up when the numbers on her digital clock add up to either 6 or 13.
I don't tease my wife about this. She'd only remind me that during the critical scenes in a hair-raising movie I won't let any of my body parts touch. (I spread my arms and legs, separate my fingers and toes, and raise my feet off the ground. I sit there frozen, as if paused mid-air in some kind of karate leap, until the scene ends.) Like most people who have odd rituals, I'm not sure why I continue to do this, even as I recognize its silliness. I suspect it's rooted in some long-forgotten childhood fear.
Indeed, many personal superstitions carry over from youth. As a boy, Jake, my friend and former book editor, crossed himself every time he passed a church. No longer a devout Catholic, he still does this as an adult. My friend Nancy must establish eye contact with her cat every morning before she leaves her apartment. She traces this to when she was a kid and needed to kiss her mother before she went to school. "I really don't put much stock in rituals," Nancy told me. "There's just something reassuring about having done them. It's sort of like, 'Okay, everything is in order, now I can face the day.'"
Superstitions, disconnected from true belief like this, simply offer the brain an if/then narrative in a universe that is too threateningly random, unconnected, and disinterested. The baseball player who taps his helmet three times before he steps up to the plate isn't necessarily a gullible rube who believes in magic tricks and fairy tales. His ritual is a recognition that he's got a big job to do, he doesn't know how it will turn out, and that he can only give it his best. Why did he get the clutch hit when he's failed so many times before in that same spot? "Because" is too frightening an answer. It's because he tapped his helmet. We don't risk our lives on an airplane in the vain hope that it's not going to go down. Instead, we tap its side while boarding.
An ounce of superstition may be a good thing. To allow yourself an ounce of superstition is to admit you don't have all the answers. Nature certainly has laws and reason may be humanity's saving grace, but life doesn't follow neat patterns discernible either in a crystal ball or under a microscope. As any trekkie knows, Spock and Data may be the sharpest tacks in the universe, but they often completely miss the boat when trying to solve problems that, like most of history, involve complex human motives. Life is erratic, and it's best lived not as a science, but as an art.
So don't deny yourself your embarrassing ritual. Maybe that's what keeps you on your toes, alert to unforeseen possibilities, able to "think outside the box." Rubbing worry beads or patting a buddha's belly won't solve your problems, but it might clear your head so you can.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was Are Marriages Made in Heaven, or Hell?
This essay originally appeared at Beliefnet.com.
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