The Science of Bad Luck: Knocking on Wood Can Undo a Jinx

First Posted: Oct 01, 2013 01:58 PM EDT

Don't want to jinx something? You'd better knock on wood. Superstition around what is and isn't "bad luck" may just have some science behind the practices associated it. It turns out that superstitions may actually "reverse" perceived bad fortune.

People often believe that negative outcomes are especially likely after a jinx. For example, if someone says "No one I know will ever get into a car accident," it often feels as if a car accident is likely to occur. Yet this "bad luck" can be avoided by engaging in a ritual. For example, the person can knock on wood, spit or throw salt.

There are many common rituals for undoing bad luck. What's interesting to note, though, is that all of these rituals seem to involve movements that exert force away from the person. In order to examine the mentality behind these actions a bit more closely, the researchers decided to employ several participants in a series of experiments.

In the five experiments, the researchers had volunteers either tempt fate or not. The participants then engaged in an action that was either avoidant or not. The avoidant actions included those that were superstitious, such as knocking on wood, or non-superstitious, such as throwing a ball. In the end, the scientists found that those who used these avoidant actions believed that a jinxed negative outcome was less likely. That was in sharp contrast to those who did non-avoidant actions such as knocking toward themselves or holding a ball.

"Our findings suggest that not all actions to undo a jinx are equally effective," said Jane Risen, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Instead, we find that avoidant actions that exert force away from one's representation of self are especially effective for reducing the anticipated negative consequences following a jinx. Engaging in an avoidant action seems to create the sense that the bad luck is being pushed away."

The findings reveal the mentality behind these social interactions. More specifically, they show that people can do simple, physical actions in order to feel better about doing or saying something. Not only does this reveal a bit more about how people think, but it also shows that bad luck is something that shouldn't be completely ignored.

The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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