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Let’s Resolve to Be Less Superstitious

Every January we’re treated to a display of superstitious rites that lie forgotten the rest of the year.

With the new year firmly up and running, you may already be second-guessing those pesky resolutions so firmly declared a few weeks ago. Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire in England discovered that only 12 percent of people in their study successfully kept their New Year’s resolutions by the end of the year. Keeping focused on one specific resolution — not some general one made in previous years (“lose weight”) or chosen haphazardly at the strike of midnight (“no more alcohol”) — yielded better results.

This belief of creating ourselves anew at the start of the calendar year has its roots in a superstition that what we do on January 1 affects us in the ensuing year. At midnight, we kiss our loved ones to guarantee continued romance and affection; we make loud noises to ward off evil spirits; we wear new clothes to ensure our ability to continue buying the best garments during the year; and we avoid crying, talking of death, and breaking things on New Year’s to prevent bad vibes in the months ahead.

SKEPTIC'S CAFEPeter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

Cultural differences abound: Eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s is essential in some Southern U.S. states, while consuming 12 grapes is a tradition in many Spanish societies. For the British, the “first-footer” superstition claims that the first person to cross your threshold on New Year’s day will determine whether it will be a year of good or bad luck. And, it goes without saying, the baby born on New Year’s is the luckiest child of all — except as she grows older and realizes that being born so close to Christmas often precludes additional parties and gifts.

Critical thinking skills and skeptical reasoning influence how we view these beliefs and how seriously we invoke the yearly customs. Superstitions of one kind or another often play a role in our daily lives even when we might not consider ourselves the “superstitious type.” Perhaps you insist on wearing a particular lucky shirt when competing in a sporting event, or take along that special pen to the next exam because it always helped you earn an A on earlier tests. Admit it: You’ve knocked on wood to ward off some potentially bad luck or carried around the foot of some dead furry animal.

Despite our rational skills, a good many of us at one time or another have invoked a harmless custom or superstitious ritual.

A superstition is typically a groundless and nonscientifically established belief in the property of objects or actions to magically produce specific outcomes. Yet for some people, superstitions can be a more serious matter than the benign customs we sometimes endorse. For these folks, superstitions and related magical actions can seriously impact their daily lives.

When was the last time you were in a hotel and noticed that the elevator went from the 12th floor to the 14th? Of course, when you’re told your room is on the 14th floor, and you realize it’s really the 13th, you lock the bathroom door when taking a shower, just in case this Ritz becomes the Bates Motel! There really are some people who take this unlucky 13 seriously enough to affect their behavior. According to a 2007 Gallup Poll, 13 percent of the respondents (yes, 13 percent!) admitted to being bothered if given a room on the 13th floor of a hotel, and most of them would ask to change rooms. Women were twice as likely as men to be superstitious and bothered by the 13th floor and three times as likely to ask for a room on another floor.

Stuart Vyse’s 1997 study Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition concluded that superstitious people tend to be less tolerant of ambiguity and more stressed, feel less in control of their lives (often depressed and have lower self-esteem) and have a greater fear of death. Superstition is also related to misunderstanding probability, resulting in errors in reasoning and selective confirmation of already-held beliefs.

For example, consider the gambler who wears his lucky socks to the casino and wins a huge jackpot at the slot machine. On the next visit to the casino, the lucky socks are left at home and the gambler loses quite a bit of money. Superstition dictates that there is an evident connection between the presence of lucky clothing and success at getting money from the machines. The magical properties inherent in the socks appear confirmed, yet the gambler forgets a basic principle of probability theory.

Given the large number of people playing slots in the many casinos in the world, chance alone guarantees someone will win big. The “law of truly large numbers” states that when numerous people are engaged in some behavior, unlikely events are virtually certain to occur. It would be very rare for one person to flip a coin 10 times and get 10 heads. But put 1,024 people in a room each flipping a coin 10 times, the odds are that one of them will get 10 heads in a row. Large numbers of people improve the chance of a rare occurrence. Lucky clothing, a knock on wood, or a rabbit’s foot can appear to work pretty well.

Let’s hope that the rituals you invoked as we welcomed 2011, and the resolutions you strive to follow, bring you good fortune, lucky socks and at least 13 months of critical thinking and skeptical reasoning.

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