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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Jun;143(3):1171-84. doi: 10.1037/a0034023. Epub 2013 Aug 12.

Reversing one's fortune by pushing away bad luck.

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School of Business.
Booth School of Business, University of Chicago.


Across cultures, people try to "undo" bad luck with superstitious rituals such as knocking on wood, spitting, or throwing salt. We suggest that these rituals reduce the perceived likelihood of anticipated negative outcomes because they involve avoidant actions that exert force away from one's representation of self, which simulates the experience of pushing away bad luck. Five experiments test this hypothesis by having participants tempt fate and then engage in avoidant actions that are either superstitious (Experiment 1, knocking on wood) or nonsuperstitious (Experiments 2-5, throwing a ball). We find that participants who knock down (away from themselves) or throw a ball think that a jinxed negative outcome is less likely than participants who knock up (toward themselves) or hold a ball. Experiments 3 and 4 provide evidence that after tempting fate, engaging in an avoidant action leads to less clear mental representations for the jinxed event, which, in turn, leads to lower perceived likelihoods. Finally, we demonstrate that engaging in an avoidant action-rather than creating physical distance-is critical for reversing the perceived effect of the jinx. Although superstitions are often culturally defined, the underlying psychological processes that give rise to them may be shared across cultures.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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