Why We Don’t Like to Tempt Fate


Seven Years Bad Luck?

Seven Years Bad Luck?

One of the most common superstitions is related to tempting fate – you know the one where others turn round and say, “Why did you say that? Now we are never going to get there on time!”  That’s why is it consider ill-mannered to compliment newborn babies in various cultures for fear of jinxing. Why is this? Why are we reluctant to comment on how well things are going? Jane Risen and Tom Gilovich recently published an intriguing investigation of this superstition where students were told about two potential scenarios. Jon has applied to the prestigious Stanford and is awaiting his decision letter. His mother who is confident that he will get in sends him a Stanford t-shirt. Participants then read either one of these two endings to the story:

Jon wears it while he’s waiting for the decision from Stanford, thereby tempting fate (gods are angered).


Jon stuffs the t-shirt in the drawer, not tempting fate (gods are mollified).

When asked to rate Jon’s chances of getting accepted to Standford, participants were significantly less likely to say that he would get in if he wore the t-shirt. Why is this? Students know that wearing a t-shirt does not influence the outcome. Risen and Gilovich think that these scenarios trigger automatic intuitive processes that focus on negative outcomes. (They found that giving participants a secondary task that occupies the rational suppression of intuition led to more superstition as I have previously reported).

Negative outcomes are more accessible than positive ones in our mind and we are particularly biased to remember instances were we flout the “don’t tempt fate” convention and things go wrong. This in turn reinforces the strength of the belief in fate. Once a given superstition gains some acceptance in a social group, no matter how arbitrary (don’t break mirrors, don’t walk under a ladder, don’t comment on success), the thought of flaunting it makes the prospect of a negative outcome seem especially negative and especially likely.

This is a great paper and of course is more grist to my mill that our SuperSense is a collection of intuitively based processes that generate supernatural beliefs. However, Risen and Gilovich have elucidated how these beliefs operate in the individual and their paper explains why arbitrary superstitions transmit culturally. My only difference would be that most of these beliefs are not arbitrary but rather share commonalities that emerge as part of normal child development.


Filed under Research

7 responses to “Why We Don’t Like to Tempt Fate

  1. Funny you should blog about this article. It so happens that I am currently working with a couple of colleagues on an alternative interpretation of the results.

  2. Wait, what information did the students have to evaluate chances of getting into Stanford on? Only whether he was wearing the t-shirt. If so, then that leaves the students with no relevant information at all (except, perhaps, that his mother is confident), and all inference are based on the t-shirt. That doesn’t seem like a very good setup to me.

    • brucehood

      Well I guess that’s the point. Even if they were given additional information it would have to be equivalent for both groups- only the wearing or not wearing t-shirt would have to be the independent measure under investigation. The effect is not massive but statistically significant.

      • But that’s asking them to make up their minds about something which there isn’t any real way to assess (at least that’s the point, right, that everyone knows wearing the t-shirt or not makes no difference). That way the emphasis on the t-shirt is inflated. If they were all told that Jon did really well on his GRE, and he had a very good interview with a professor there, then it may end up that the info about the t-shirt means nothing to both groups.

      • brucehood

        Oh I see your point now- that if it was a close thing then people are more likely to look towards luck factors.

        I just checked the paper and they simply say that Jon was applying to grad school and Stanford was his first choice. I suspect the authors felt that Jon had the sufficient grades and that it was really now down to a matter of chance to whether or not he got in to Stanford.

  3. Maddie

    As a writer, I think the test should be reworded, they might get some faulty results from reader conditioning. Readers expect that when phrases like tempting the gods are met, they will be met with a failure. Mind you, I’m not sure how they should reword it.

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