How Superstition Works

Good-luck socks, numbers, and stars: Magical thinking remains popular across cultures and professions.
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(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.

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(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.

A group of studies of Canadian scholastic athletes represents the best systematic investigations of superstition in sport. Hans Buhrmann and Maxwell Zaugg found that among basketball players at the junior high school through university levels, success breeds superstition. Starters, presumably the better players on a team, were more superstitious than nonstarters, and teams with better win-loss records were more superstitious than their less fortunate competitors. In a second study, the same researchers identified the most popular superstitions among scholastic basketball players. Free-throw rituals were particularly popular, as were various practices regarding dress. It is interesting to note that, consistent with the differing socialization of boys and girls, female basketball players were more likely to believe that dressing well is important to success; whereas males more often put their faith in dressing sloppily. When the sloppy dressers are combined with the neat dressers, we find that 86 percent of the boys and 90 percent of the girls made special sartorial efforts of one type or another.

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(Adapted from Buhrmann, Brown, and Zaugg, 1982

In a comparison of several college sports, Jane Gregory and Brian Petrie found more superstition among participants in team sports, such as basketball, ice hockey, and volleyball, than among individual-sport athletes, such as swimmers and tennis players. The authors attributed this result to the social transmission of superstitious beliefs among the members of sports teams. This notion is further supported by the popularity of group superstitions among team-sport players.

Although many of the magical beliefs held by athletes are purely individual, the world of sport is also famous for its group or team superstitions. In baseball, it is widely believed that, if a pitcher has held the opposing team hitless, it is bad luck to mention the "no-hitter" in the dugout during the game. Some say the best way to avoid "jinxing" the pitcher is to stay away from him altogether and keep quiet. The Connecticut College women’s basketball team has a group practice that is believed to bring good luck: when they join hands before the start of a game, the players break out of the huddle with a shout of "Together!" This cheer is never used at the beginning of the second half or at any other point in a game, and new players must be educated in its use when they join the team.

Finally, Gregory and Petrie discovered a unique aspect of superstition in the game of hockey. Most superstitious beliefs in sport involve either personal superstitions aimed at improving individual performance or group superstitions directed toward team success. All players participate equally and no one is singled out—except in hockey. Success in ice hockey is highly dependent on the performance of a single player: the goalie. The hockey goalie’s sole function is to minimize the opposing team’s score by stopping or deflecting every shot the opposing team makes into the goal. It is a very difficult position to play, and a talented goalie is a highly valued member of the team. Not surprisingly, Gregory and Petrie found that a great number of hockey superstitions involved the goalie. For example, players often believe it is important to let the goalie go out on the ice first, and many players slap the goalie’s pads for luck. Like the no-hitter in baseball, team members avoid mentioning a shutout to the goalie before the end of the game.

College Students and Exams

As someone who regularly teaches the psychology student’s most feared course, psychological statistics (known widely as “sadistics”), I am keenly aware of the anxiety that examinations can bring. In the hours before an exam, particularly the first exam of the semester, I receive more calls from students than at any other time of the year. A diverse array of maladies of varying degrees of credibility emerge just in time to forestall the dreaded event. Personal, family, and cohort emergencies suddenly appear, and I am forced to listen to stories I would rather not hear. Both vomiting and crying are not unusual before, during, or after an exam, and in one case a student had an epileptic seizure.

College students are not famous for their superstitions. In fact, conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers. Yet superstition is frequently associated with fear of failure, and when it comes to examinations, many college students are genuinely fearful. In a fascinating investigation of exam-related superstitions, two Canadian researchers found that college students are indeed a superstitious group.

As part of a larger study of college life, sociologists Daniel and Cheryl Albas gathered data over 13 years from more than 300 students at the University of Manitoba. Students filled out standardized questionnaires and recorded descriptions of relevant thoughts, sentiments, and behavior in examination logs. In addition, the investigators observed students in a number of locations, on and off campus, and conducted many formal and informal interviews. Based on this information, the Albases estimated that from 20 to 33 percent of their students used magic, primarily to bring on good luck rather than to stave off bad. They discovered that student’s exam-related superstitions fell into two broad categories: the use of magical objects and the practice of special rituals. The Albases enumerated too many examples to present here, but a selection of beliefs and behaviors will help to give us a flavor of this subculture.

One of the most popular student superstitions involved clothing, and, with some exceptions, the predominant practice was "dressing down." Old sweatshirts were (and, I believe, still are) quite popular. One science student always wore an old scarf that he claimed "carries parts of my brain in it." Some students dressed up, however, and a young man who always wore a three-piece suit admitted, "It’s not a very logical thing to wear to an exam because it’s hot and restricting." Yet he maintained the belief that his suit improved his performance.

Several students reported that they used special pens with which they had written previous successful exams. Such pens were thought to improve performance; having to take an exam without one’s special pen would be cause for concern. An advertisement in a student newspaper read as follows:

Help! I've lost my silver Cross pen. Deep psychological and sentimental value; never written an exam without it. Lost last Friday. If found contact Anna …

Typically, textbooks cannot be used during an exam. At the University of Manitoba, students stacked books around the perimeter of the examination room or under their desks. Nevertheless, several students reported that being able to see their books during an exam improved their performance: "summaries come up through the covers."

Some students used more common talismans, such as rabbit’s feet, dice, and coins, as well as teddy bears and other cuddly toys. In this category the Albases reported one particularly unusual case. A young male student would not take an exam unless he had "found" a coin, which he interpreted as a sign of good luck. As a result, he would search for a coin on the day of an exam, often wasting precious study time "scrounging around bus stops" until he was successful—even at the risk of being late to the exam.

Of the individual-centered superstitious or magical acts aimed at bringing good luck, the overwhelming favorite was prayer. The Albases reported that even some nonreligious students prayed prior to exams. However, some observed secular rituals. For example, students reported knocking on the exam room door three times before entering, stepping over the threshold of the exam room with their right foot, or circling the exam building—regardless of the weather conditions. Another popular practice was listening to a "lucky song" or tape. One student said she played the song "Money Changes Everything" on the drive to school; another listened to Martin Luther King’s "I have a dream" speech before every exam.

It is clear that this kind of behavior is not unique to Manitoba. I have observed similar superstitions among my own students, and at Harvard University, where students are presumably very intelligent, rubbing the foot of the statue of John Harvard is considered good luck.

Gamblers

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American soldiers playing craps, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons)

Most games of chance are just that. Their outcomes are random events, completely out of the player’s control. The lottery player cannot will a "lucky number" to come up; the roulette player has no power over the spinning ball. Nevertheless, many gamblers act as though they were playing games of skill. In some games, such as blackjack and draw poker, the player uses a strategy to decide when it is best to draw a card and when it is not. Furthermore, by understanding the odds, one can become a skillful bettor. But most gambling games do not involve skill.

Yet gambling is as old as human civilization itself. It was popular in ancient Egypt, Persia, China, India, Greece, and Rome. In England, dice-playing appeared during the Roman occupation, and by the 18th century gambling had been institutionalized in public gaming houses. Historically, many gamblers have put faith in "luck" and the belief that chance events are, to some extent, under their control. In 1711, The Spectator published accounts of the "lucky numbers" used by British lottery players. One individual played the number 1711 because it was the current year; another played 134 because it was the minority vote on an important bill in the House of Commons. Today similar beliefs are found in various "systems"—some published in popular books—for winning the lottery or betting on horse races, as well as in many personal and social superstitions of the gambling subculture.

There have been several studies of magical belief among modern gamblers, including investigations of bingo, poker, and roulette players, but the most revealing of these is a study of craps players published by sociologist James Henslin in 1967. (Craps is a wagering game played with dice.) Like Malinowski, Henslin used the method of participant observation, spending as much time as possible with a group of St. Louis cab drivers, both on and off duty. He soon discovered that the drivers frequently played craps in the early-morning hours between shifts.

Craps is a game of pure chance. There is no skill involved in throwing dice. The movements of the clicking, tumbling cubes conform only to the laws of physics and probability, and as long as the dice are not weighted or rigged, every throw is a random event. Nevertheless, Henslin found that these taxi-drivers-turned-crapshooters employed a number of strategies that they believed increased their chances of winning.

Typically the shooter hopes to roll a particular number—a 7 or 11 on the first roll, one’s point on subsequent rolls. The most popular theory of dice-throwing holds that the number rolled is positively correlated with the velocity of the throw. A soft touch brings a low number; a hard throw brings a high one. Other methods of “controlling” the dice include taking one’s time between rolls and “talking to the dice.” This last strategy is often employed at the moment the dice are released, when one shouts out the desired number.

Another common method of controlling the dice is to snap one’s fingers. Shooters often snap their fingers as the dice are thrown or as they bounce off the backboard. (Typically the dice are thrown on a flat surface, and the shooter is required to roll them in such a way that they bounce against a wall or some other backboard.) Henslin found that some of the drivers were extremely ritualistic in their finger-snapping and that, when a die would spin before falling to rest, a special form of the finger-snapping ritual often emerged:

It sometimes happens that, after the dice are cast, one will spin like a top on one of its corners. When this happens, the shooter will frequently point with his index finger close to the die, wait until the die has slowed down, and, just as it begins to fall to rest from the spin, loudly snap his finger against his thumb in an effort to control the resultant point.

Finally, Henslin’s cab drivers espoused the belief that successful shooting required confidence. As a result, they frequently expressed great certainty about their ability to roll the points they wanted. For example, as they rolled the dice, players would often say, "There’s a seven!" Once established, confidence had to be maintained, so players who were betting with the shooter often urged him not to "get shook." To retain control over the dice, the shooter had to "take it easy" and "take his time." Henslin pointed out that this view of confidence is very similar to one frequently promoted in competitive sports. Athletes are told not to "get shook," because a lack of confidence would interfere with their self-control and ability to concentrate. Of course, this theory might be valid for a skillful activity, such as basketball or baseball, but it has no relevance for games of chance.

Other beliefs surrounded the treatment of the dice. Dropping the dice was seen as a bad omen, but rubbing the dice was thought to improve one’s luck. Often players would rub the dice against the playing surface, and in some cases they would rub them on another player. One shooter rubbed the dice under the chin of the player who was betting against him.

In addition to magical shooting techniques, players employed a number of betting methods to control the dice. It was commonly believed that the shooter could increase the chances of rolling his point if he raised his bet. In one case, a player had rolled several times without hitting his point. After adding a few dollars to his bet, another player remarked, "He’ll make it now. He put more money on it."

Henslin’s craps players, like athletes and exam-takers, represent a subculture rich in magical thinking. Each of these groups confronts a situation in which a particular outcome is both uncertain and highly valued, and each appears to have made superstition an integral part of its activities.

The Demographics of Superstition

Gender

A large number of studies have shown that women are more superstitious and have greater belief in paranormal phenomena than men. For example, the 2007 Gallup poll found that women were over twice as likely to be bothered by staying on the 13th floor of a hotel (18 percent for women versus 8 percent for men) and almost three times as likely to ask for a room on a different floor (14 percent of women versus 5 percent of men) Gender differences in belief in superstition and the paranormal are also common among college students, as well as other groups; however, there are some exceptions. Psychologists Jerome Tobacyk and Gary Milford found that college women had greater belief in precognition (the ability to predict the future) than college men, but men showed significantly greater belief in extraordinary life forms, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Similar results were found by Kia Aarnio and Marjaana Lindeman in a large sample of Finnish university students.

Age

Many studies of age differences have shown that older people are more skeptical than young people, but others have found the opposite relationship. The 1996 Gallup poll of paranormal belief found that adults under 30 were "much more likely than those older to believe in haunted houses, in witches, in ghosts, that extraterrestrials have visited earth, and in clairvoyance." In contrast, Buhrmann and Zaugg’s research found that older scholastic basketball players were more superstitious than younger ones, but this result is somewhat misleading. All of the athletes in this study were quite young, ranging in age from 12 to 22—much younger than most of the Gallup respondents. As a result, the greater superstition of college-age players probably reflects more experience playing the game and a more complete immersion in its peculiar subculture.

An interesting example of the relationship between increased age and increased skepticism is found in a study of police officers and the full-moon effect. Many law-enforcement officials, emergency-room workers, and mental-health professionals believe that crimes, accidents, and psychological problems are more numerous during the full moon, the time of lunacy. The full-moon effect has stimulated considerable interest, but after examining all the relevant research, several investigators have failed to find evidence for a relationship between the phases of the moon and any measure of human behavior. In a study of 51 male police officers, Robert Corrigan, Lee Pattison, and David Lester found that 63 percent of the officers believed in the full-moon effect and that younger, less experienced officers were more likely to believe than older officers. Apparently, age and experience fighting crime leads to the moon’s acquittal.

A different conclusion was drawn by British folklorist Gillian Bennett. In her study of retired English women, 77 percent said that premonition was possible, and 43 percent were certain of its reality. Bennett suggested that these older women "salvage a great deal from their lifestyle, and, through their concept of the spiritual/supernatural world, endow their role with something of the holy." Many of Bennett’s women had lost their former roles as wives and mothers and the status that these roles provided. Their relationship with the supernatural helped them retain some of their former stature and sustain connections with loved ones separated by death or distance. Bennett’s findings suggest that, at least among these British women, increasing age may actually lead to greater belief in the supernatural.

The water is further muddied by a study conducted by psychologist Seymour Epstein. Epstein surveyed three groups—children ages 9–12, college students ages 18–22, and adults ages 27–65—about various superstitions and paranormal beliefs. Several of the beliefs in the Epstein study show little variation across the age groups. For example, thought projection and seeing into the future are consistently endorsed by approximately 20 percent of each group. However, some of these beliefs decrease with increasing age (e.g., good and bad magic), and others increase with age (e.g., having good luck charms and superstition). Similarly, although the 1996 Gallup poll of paranormal beliefs showed generally higher endorsement by younger Americans, the 2007 poll indicated that women 50 or older were far more likely to be bothered by a room on the 13th floor than younger women or men of any age. Taken in total, the relationship between age and superstitious or paranormal beliefs appears to be complicated; it is safest to say that, at this time, no general statement can be made about age on magical beliefs.

Education

Claiborne Pell, former U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, was an educated man. Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, he earned an A.B. cum laude from Princeton University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A strong supporter of higher education, he created the Pell Grants program, which provides financial aid to needy college students, and was the principal sponsor of the 1965 law establishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

But in addition to his involvement with traditional academic pursuits, Senator Pell was a supporter of "psychical research." In 1988, he received considerable attention in the press when it was discovered that he had hired "UFO enthusiast" C. B. Scott Jones, at an annual salary of $48,000, as a full-time aide to investigate various paranormal phenomena in the national interest. In addition, Pell attempted to create a federal commission to promote "human potential" research and invited Uri Geller to Washington to demonstrate his professed psychic powers for congressional representatives. In 1990, during the months before the First Iraq War, Pell’s interest in the supernatural surfaced again when it emerged that Jones had written a letter to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney expressing concern that the word Simone appeared when audio- tapes of Cheney’s speeches were played backwards. Jones, who holds a Ph.D. in International Studies from American University, was investigating "reverse-speech therapy" and wrote Cheney out of concern that Simone might be "a code word that would not be in the national interest to be known."

One might suspect that these events would be welcome ammunition for an opposition candidate, but in the hard-fought reelection campaign of 1990, the senator’s interest in psychic research was barely mentioned. Fortunately for Pell, his challenger, former U.S. Representative Claudine Schneider, could not attack this point because she, too, is a believer in ESP and other psychic phenomena.

Finally, in November 1995, after Pell had announced his plan to retire from the Senate, the Central Intelligence Agency disclosed that for over 20 years it had supported a top-secret program, code-named Stargate, aimed at researching the value of psychic remote viewing (the ability to see objects and events that are miles away) for intelligence-gathering purposes. The CIA had spent a total of $20 million on the Stargate program, but when an independent study by the American Institutes for Research evaluated the program, it found that evidence for the validity of remote viewing was lacking, and that even if remote viewing were clearly demonstrated, it would be of doubtful usefulness. When former CIA director Robert Gates was asked why the agency pursued the Stargate program, he cited competition with the Russians, who were engaged in similar research, and pressure from a few unnamed congressmen.

Obviously, education does not make one immune to superstitious or paranormal beliefs. Indeed, most published studies of paranormal belief have used college students as subjects. Yet we might expect that higher education, particularly in the sciences, would lead to increased critical thinking and greater skepticism. The research on this point is somewhat mixed, but there is some evidence that formal education does lead to skepticism. In a study of people working in New York City, Stuart and Lucille Blum found lower superstitious belief in those with more years of education. In 1982, Laura Otis and James Alcock published a study of several types of "extraordinary beliefs" among college students, professors, and members of the general public. In most instances, professors were found to be more skeptical than students; however, students showed the same level of supernatural belief as the general public. In a more recent large-scale study of Finish students, Kia Aarnio and Marjaana Lindeman found that, compared to university students, vocational school students had higher levels of belief in a variety of paranormal phenomena. In addition, there is evidence that certain academic fields are associated with greater skepticism than others. For example, Otis and Alcock found that, among their relatively skeptical professors, English professors were more likely to believe in ghosts, psychic phenomena, and fortunetelling. Similarly, a survey of over a thousand American faculty members on belief in ESP found social and natural scientists to be significantly more skeptical than representatives from the humanities, arts, and education. Among the social sciences, psychologists were the most skeptical. Finally, a study of Harvard undergraduates found stronger belief in astrology, ESP, and UFOs among majors in the humanities and the social and biological sciences than among natural-science majors.

My own educational history spans both ends of the humanities–sciences continuum and has brought me into contact with both skeptics and believers. As an academic psychologist, I now live among the skeptics, but in the late 1960s I was an English major, earning both a B.A. and an M.A. before leaving school for a stint in the world of work. A graduate-school friend of mine from that early period had some rather bizarre magical beliefs that seemed to stem, at least in part, from his literary studies. He was a rather intense fellow who lived Hemingway and Faulkner rather than just reading them. As a modern-literature specialist, he studied Frazer’s Golden Bough because it was a significant influence on T.S. Eliot and several other writers, and he believed in sympathetic magic. My friend lived in graduate-student housing with his wife and their young son, and one night he told me that he kept all of their nail clippings in a special dish on his bookshelf. While studying late at night, he would chew them up and swallow them. I have often wondered whether this behavior represented an odd, eucharistic sort of eating disorder (he was a Catholic), but he said his intention was to prevent these materials from falling into the wrong hands. He believed that through contagious magic, some malevolent person could use the fingernail clippings to bring harm to his family. By disposing of them in this way, he was protecting his loved ones. I do not recall whether my friend had any special method for getting rid of hair clippings, but if he did, I hope it was not the same as his method for nail clippings.

Aside from this strange practice, my graduate-school friend was perfectly sane. He was one of the department’s top students and a great father and husband—someone who was far more mature than I was then and someone whom I admired. His belief in contagious magic was probably caused by a number of factors, but his relatively greater exposure to literature than to science may have played a role. Paranormal phenomena are almost never encountered in science classes, yet they are quite common in novels, poetry, and plays, even among the classics.

Although research suggests that education plays an antagonistic role in relation to superstition and the paranormal, the results are not clear-cut. Because the investigators could not randomly assign their participants to various educational groups, these studies may tell us less about the effects of higher education than they do about the people who choose to pursue different academic paths. Does study in the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, and geology, for example—lead to a more critical analysis of common superstitions, or do those who are skeptical choose to major in the natural sciences? Probably both hypotheses are true. There is good evidence that certain educational experiences lead to greater skepticism; but people who are more skeptical may also, for whatever reason, be more likely to choose the natural sciences.

Several studies have reported conflicting results. For example, in a study of "traditional beliefs" among West African students, Gustav Jahoda found no effect of college education in general and no effect of science courses specifically. Similarly, Charles Salter and Lewis Routledge studied 98 University of Pennsylvania graduate students and found no differences in paranormal belief across major fields and no reduction in these beliefs with increased years of study. Thus, although there is some evidence that certain educational experiences reduce supernatural belief, the relationship is far from ironclad. Surprising as it may seem, Senator Pell is probably not an unusual case.


This post is adapted from Stuart Vyse's Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

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

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