How Superstition Works

Good-luck socks, numbers, and stars: Magical thinking remains popular across cultures and professions.
More
[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
(ralph and jenny/flickr; Romtomtom/flickr; Carly & Art/flickr; matsuyuki/flickr)

In May 1988, Donald Regan, former White House Chief of Staff to President Ronald Reagan, released his memoirs to a flood of publicity. His insider’s view of the presidency revealed that, over a seven-year period, First Lady Nancy Reagan had employed an astrologer to advise her on a wide range of topics, many of which bore directly on the affairs of state.

According to Regan, "Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House Chief of Staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favorable alignment for the enterprise." He claimed that Mrs. Reagan "insisted on being consulted on the timing of every Presidential appearance and action so that she could consult her Friend in San Francisco about the astrological factor." 

Suggestions that certain days were "bad" for the president led to the cancellation of speeches and press conferences and, on occasion, the curtailment of all travel for days at a time. Regan never discussed the issue with the president, so he was uncertain whether Mr. Reagan knew the extent to which his administration had been controlled by the alignment of the stars.

In her own memoir, My Turn, Mrs. Reagan admitted that, after the attempt on the president’s life in March 1981, she had regularly consulted astrologer Joan Quigley about her husband’s schedule, but she maintained that "Joan’s recommendations had nothing to do with policy or politics." Quigley, on the other hand, claimed that she "was heavily involved in what happened in the relations between the superpowers, changing Ronald Reagan's 'Evil Empire' attitude, so that he went to Geneva prepared to meet a different kind of Russian leader."

Although, as we have seen, belief in astrology is widespread, this issue was a substantial embarrassment for the Reagan administration, and Mrs. Reagan devoted an entire chapter of her book to explaining her actions. Understandably, she admitted to being afraid for her husband’s life. Soon after he was inaugurated, the president narrowly escaped assassination, and in the months following the shooting, Pope John Paul II was wounded in St. Peter’s Square and President Anwar Sadat was murdered in Cairo. In addition, there was the 20-year curse: since 1840, every president elected or reelected in a year ending in zero had either died or been assassinated in office. Mr. Reagan was elected to his first term in 1980, and articles about the "20-year death cycle" had appeared during his campaign. Mrs. Reagan had not been particularly concerned at the time, but, she wrote, "now that my own husband was president and an attempt had been made on his life, the historical pattern became terrifying to me."

Mrs. Reagan was motivated by fear for her husband’s safety, but why, given all the options available to her, was she moved to consult an astrologer? The answer lies in her background in acting:

Another reason I was open to astrology was that I have spent most of my life in the company of show-business people, where superstitions and other nonscientific beliefs are widespread and commonly accepted. Maybe it's because the entertainment business is so unpredictable and impervious to logic, but starting with my mother, who was an actress, just about every performer I have known has been at least mildly superstitious. For example: It's bad luck to whistle in the dressing room. Never throw your hat on the bed. And never keep your shoes on a shelf that's higher than your head.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Reagan were products of the entertainment sub-culture, which, like the worlds of sports and gambling, is a traditional stronghold of superstition. Mrs. Reagan undoubtedly felt she needed all the help she could get to ensure her husband's safety, and her background had led her to feel that astrology was a valid response to the vagaries of life.

Common folk wisdom holds that a number of subcultures are by nature particularly superstitious. These people are said to practice superstitions that are either unique to, or characteristic of, their group. Mrs. Reagan’s testimony supports a familiar view of actors. Other traditionally superstitious groups include gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors, and, somewhat surprisingly, college students. Although there are many interesting anecdotal accounts of superstition among these groups, few systematic studies have been conducted. Of these, the best are investigations of scholastic athletes, college students, and craps players.

Superstition in Sport

Sport is an integral part of popular culture. A country's great sports help shape its heritage and sense of national identity. In the United States, some believe that baseball is the premier American sport. Many writers, including several of our finest novelists, have described the game with religious reverence. Others contend that football or basketball is the true American sport. But most would agree that sport is truly American.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
(Håkan Dahlström/flickr)

The popularity of sport combined with the fact that its participants are a traditionally superstitious group make athletes, particularly professional athletes, the most famous of all superstitious people. Journalists have delighted in revealing the curious habits of the heroes of the playing field. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly forced himself to vomit before every game, a habit he had practiced since high school. NBA star Chuck Persons used to eat two candy bars before every game: two KitKats, two Snickers, or one of each. Former New York Mets pitcher Turk Wendell, named the most superstitious athlete of all time by Men’s Fitness magazine, would brush his teeth between innings. Wayne (The Great One) Gretzky, former star of the New York Rangers hockey team, always tucked the right side of his jersey behind his hip pads.

Uncertainty is an integral part of most sports. In basketball, the best professional players make only half their shots from the field. Quarterbacks in the National Football League complete, on average, only 61 percent of their passes. Because the motivation to win or perform well is quite strong, it is not surprising that athletes resort to magic in an attempt to alter these percentages. Interestingly, superstitions within a particular sport are generally restricted to the least-certain activities. George Gmelch, an anthropologist and former professional baseball player, noted that the most capricious parts of the game are batting and pitching. Because winning depends on scoring more runs than the opposing team, a pitcher can perform very well and yet lose the game, or can give up several runs and win. A great pitch can be hit out of the park, and a bad one can become a crucial third strike. In batting, a 30 percent success rate makes one a “premier player,” whereas 26 percent is only average. In contrast, fielding is a more reliable enterprise. Infielders have approximately three seconds to prepare for a ball hit toward them, and outfielders have even more time. Few things can intervene to alter the ball’s trajectory from bat to glove. As a result, when the ball is hit toward a fielder, the player successfully catches it or throws the batter out an average of 97 percent of the time. In the “safer waters” of the playing field, there is little need for magic.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Stuart Vyse is the Joanne Toor Cummings '50 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Ghost Trains of America

Can a band of locomotive experts save vintage railcars from ruin?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In