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.