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Do You Feel Lucky?

Do You Feel Lucky?

By Matt Gibson


On this morning’s journey to work I had to face a difficult choice: should I walk under a ladder, or get off the pavement completely and walk along the busy main road? Or to put it another way: did I feel lucky?

“Oh, grow up!” you cry. “Superstition’s all rubbish!”

Is it? I put on my lucky researching hat and headed for the web. I could already imagine the experimental write-ups.

“To compare the unluckiness inflicted by our control cat, we took a white cat and attempted to dye it black. Unfortunately, this action itself appears to induce large amounts of negative luck.

“Once we’d bandaged our wounds, we then tried to herd our cats across the path of our experimental subject. Four hours later, the cats were at the top of the curtains and we’d broken a mirror during the chase, which would have obvious implications for the validity of our results...”

No, unfortunately, I didn’t find that experiment. But to put the pigeon among the cats, what I did find was psychologist B.F. Skinner’s classic paper Superstition in the Pigeon.

Hopping mad
Skinner put a bunch of hungry pigeons in cages, then fed them a bit of food at exact, regular intervals, controlled by a timer. The food arrived no matter what the pigeon did.

What Skinner found was that each pigeon quickly developed different superstitions about what would make the food appear.

If a pigeon happened to have been hopping from one foot to the other when the food appeared, even just once or twice, then it started hopping backwards and forwards to try to make more food appear. One pigeon that had been making a pecking motion when its food appeared ended up headbanging in the hope of conjuring up second helpings.

Every pigeon developed its own little superstition as to what had made the food appear, and they all ended up hopping, head-tossing, flapping and turning on the spot, depending on what they’d been doing the first few times that food had turned up.

None of this made the food arrive any faster, of course, and that’s pretty much the definition of superstition: completely irrational belief. Skinner found that it didn’t take much to reinforce superstitions, and that they were hard to get rid of once they’d set in.

Feeling jammy
Humans can be just as bird-brained. If I happen to wear my lucky underwear (red silk boxers, thanks for asking) when I go out on the pull, it doesn’t hurt, does it? And I’ll happily forget the nine times it doesn’t work in favour of remembering the tenth, thus reinforcing my superstition.

Some cognitive psychologists think this may be because human brains are so good at pattern recognition. A side effect of this ability is that we’re likely to see patterns even when they’re not there. Back when we were cavemen, this would have been a serious survival trait. Running away from dangers which weren’t there would hardly ever get you killed, but not noticing them in the first place could clip you out of the gene pool faster than you could say, “Oops, I didn’t see that sabre-tooth tig—”

All of this might explain why superstitions have such a tenacious hold over us, even though we often don’t have a clue where they come from, or why they exist. Like all the best urban legends, people won’t let the truth interfere with telling a good story.

Ask ten different people why they “touch wood” for luck and you’ll likely get ten different explanations, ranging from from tree-nymphs to Christ on the cross. The truth is lost in the mists of time, although that one may have its origins in the nineteenth century game of “Tiggy-touch-wood”, where you were safe if you were hugging a tree.

Nobody can tell you for sure why black cats affect your luck, either. Most sources seem to agree that there’s a connection with the Egyptian cat-goddess Bast, though. There’s even a rumour that the bad reputation of black cats may have come from a Christian attempt to undermine the earlier religion.

Some superstitions, however, are clearly grounded in common sense. I couldn’t put it better than Punch did back in 1881: “It is considered unfortunate by some people to go underneath a ladder. These are the people on whom workmen have dropped pots of paint and molten lead.”

The scientific answer
Are superstitions being edged out by science? In his book The Superstitions of the British Isles, Steve Roud claims that superstitions are a response to the uncertainty of life, and that “the main reason for the decline of superstitions in modern times is that many of these uncertainties have declined.”

Rubbish. Life is as uncertain as it’s ever been. I think it’s just that our superstitions need updating a bit. I mean, how often does your average urbanite see an albatross these days? Or find a horseshoe?

So, here’s a challenge for all you scientific readers: superstitions for our times. Chemists - if I spill potassium chloride, should I throw some over my left shoulder? Physicists - is it more or less than seven years’ bad luck if you break a prism? We could even get the economists involved - surely “see a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck” needs adjusting for inflation by now?

And, most importantly for my journey to the sandwich shop this lunchtime - is it unlucky to walk under scaffolding?

Suggestions on a piece of toast, please, buttered, and strapped to the back of a cat. They should levitate their way to the Null office powered by sheer luck.

More of Matt on his homepage.

Read Skinner's pigeon paper here.

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Title image: agzu
Other image: Katie Hirsh

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26 Jul 2009
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