Study: Using Rituals to Push Away Bad Luck Is Effective

Exerting force away from the self, such as knocking on wood, after tempting fate makes people feel better.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Problem: For 18 years or so, I somehow managed to avoid learning that you were supposed to throw salt over your shoulder when you spilled it, to avoid bad luck. So when I spilled some salt in my college dining hall and my friends yelled at me to throw it over my shoulder, I panicked and threw the whole shaker.

Some people are very adamant about their superstitions. Knock on wood if you tempt fate, don’t name the Scottish play in a theater, lest you draw the ire of Lady Luck. In our brains, we know that tossing salt doesn’t really prevent bad things from happening; it just makes the ground salty. Previous research has shown that these rituals give people a sense of control, but a new study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology looks at why we choose particular rituals to get rid of our bad luck.

Methodology: The researchers hypothesized that rituals such as knocking on wood or throwing salt would be especially effective at making people feel like they are pushing away bad luck, because the physical action exerts force away from the self.

They had participants engage in a scripted conversation with an experimenter, a conversation which the experimenter eventually turned to car accidents or disease. Some participants had neutral responses to choose from, some had ones that tempted fate, such as “I’m certain that everyone I know will be 100% safe.”

After the conversation, to “clear their thoughts,” participants either knocked down on a wooden table (away from themselves), knocked up (toward themselves), threw a ball, or held a ball. Then they had the subjects rate how likely they thought it was that whatever negative thing they were discussing would come to pass.

Results: The participants who tempted fate with their presumptuous statements were less likely to think they were jinxed if they knocked on wood or threw a ball. However, as the researchers predicted, the direction of the knocking also had an effect. Knocking toward oneself was actually worse than not knocking at all, whereas knocking away from oneself had the expected calming effect. And tossing a ball—an action not normally thought of as a bad luck ritual—still caused participants to feel less jinxed.

Implications: “Theoretically, any action, compared with nonaction, can provide a sense of control,” the study reads. “If these rituals are enacted solely to restore a sense of control, then all actions should be equally likely to be adopted as a method for undoing bad luck.” This study shows that just any random action is not going to make you feel better after you’ve tempted fate—you have to push the bad luck away. So throwing a saltshaker will probably work just as well as throwing the salt.

The study, "Reversing One's Fortune By Pushing Away Bad Luck," appears in The Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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Julie Beck is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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