October 1, 2013

Superstitious? You Better Knock On Wood

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Many people who feel they may have tempted fate will ‘knock on wood’ to undo the possibility of something negative happening, and a new study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has found that the practice can actually undo perceived bad luck.

A popular superstition in Western culture, knocking on wood is similar to practices in other cultures such as spitting or throwing salt after a person has tempted fate. Even those who don’t claim to be particularly superstitious will often pick up these habits.

In a new study from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, these superstitions were tested for the capacity "reverse" perceived bad luck.

Study participants said they believed that negative consequences are especially likely after a perceived jinx, such as saying, “I never get into a car accident.”

However, people's heightened concerns after tempting fate can be removed if they perform a ritual to undo any potential misfortune.

The research team began by noting that many of these rituals appear to involve movements that exercise force away from a person, as if to push away bad luck. The researchers said they wanted to see if the avoidant nature of the action was the main element in reducing the negative mindset and elevated concern caused by tempting fate.

"Our findings suggest that not all actions to undo a jinx are equally effective,” said Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. “Instead, we find that avoidant actions that exert force away from one's representation of self are especially effective for reducing the anticipated negative consequences following a jinx.”

"Engaging in an avoidant action seems to create the sense that the bad luck is being pushed away," Risen added.

In five different experiments, participants were asked to either tempt fate or not, and then perform an action that was either avoidant or not. The avoidant actions were chosen to model either superstition-influenced behavior – like knocking on wood – or non-superstitious action– like throwing a ball.

The researchers discovered that those who knocked away from themselves or threw a ball said they believed that a cursed outcome was less likely than those who knocked toward themselves or held a ball. The research team also discovered that performing an avoidant action led people to have a less dramatic mental image of the potential negative event.

Authors Stefan Bechtel and Deborah Aaronson described the knocking on wood ritual in their book The Good Luck Book and Luck: The Essential Guide. They said that the practice may have derived from rituals performed by pagan Europeans that were used to chase away evil spirits or to prevent these spirits from hearing about and ruining a person’s good luck.

Another possible explanation is that these tree-worshipping peoples laid their hands on a tree when asking for spiritual favor or after good luck as a show of gratitude to their nature gods. This religious observance may have shifted into the superstitious knock that we all know, according to Bechtel and Aaronson.