Minimis etiam rebus prava religio inserit deos.

A foolish superstition introduces the influences of the gods even in the smallest matters.~~Titus Livy

I’m not superstitious, and I know that you are not. We are, after all, children of the 21st century, well educated and logical to the enth degree. 

That said, can we agree on a few points. Have you ever blown out all the candles on a birthday cake to make sure your wish came true? Knocked on wood (which nowadays may often as not be plastic resin)to ward off unfortunate circumstances? Wished upon the first evening star? Bought a lottery ticket with ‘lucky numbers?’

I was raised in the Midwest of second generation German immigrants. I grew up knowing one word of German almost as soon as I did English: Gesundheit! Some folks would say simply ‘Bless you’ when someone sneezed, but I, as a child, always felt infinitely more superior with that multi-syllabic uttering. It became so ingrained that even today, I feel something lacking if I sneeze in polite company and nobody evokes the magic phrase. 

Like it or not, we are products of our upraising, and being superstitious is definitely in our genes. Witness the adult takeover of Halloween. Or the elaborate rituals of sports stars. Or the fact that if the Horoscope is present in a paper or magazine, we will inevitably check out our star sign. Admit it! You know that you do.

What makes us this way? And is it harmful? Read on.

Do the pigeon walk

B.F. Skinner was famous in the 40s for his work in behavioral psychology modeled after Pavlov’s famous dogs. He worked with rats in mazes and children in boxes. But his special love was pigeons. They were so delightfully stupid. And so easily entrained. Hmmm. Sounds like a Madison Avenue response to a new ad.

When Skinner would place a pigeon in a cage and feed it at random intervals, he noticed something fascinating. They started associating whatever they were doing when the feed bucket appeared with getting food. 

Now admittedly Skinner was working with anorexic pigeons (he recommended starting with birds that were 25% under normal weight). Who wouldn’t work for birdseed when hungry!

But that rationale notwithstanding, within a very short period of time, the birds would make a connection with whatever they were staring at, whatever they were doing when the food arrived. They’d start doing it again hoping that the Gods were indeed Crazy and would drop more food down on their heads. Sometimes they did. 

Pigeon feet bobbing, bodies spinning, feathers all a ruffle—they turned into miniature whirling dervishes. And the pigeons became in Skinner’s words, “Superstitious.” You can almost see him rubbing his hands with glee.

The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other.~~Francis Bacon.

Tiger Wood’s red shirt

Fast forward to modern day sporting events. The rituals of modern day sports rituals are legendary. Rubbing bald heads, wearing lucky socks, abstaining from sex, have all been associated with winning. Now that’s a big bucket of birdseed if there ever was one.

It all goes back to the psychological principle of locus of control. Rotter devised a way to measure whether you felt you controlled circumstances or whether they were outside your control. The former he called Internal Locus of Control, that latter external Locus of Control.

Now if the situation was very, very important to you–Hoping that it didn’t rain on your corn, that you actually got that dream job, that your team beat your dreaded rival–well, there were some things in your control, and a lot that was not.

Having a ritual that sometimes worked, didn’t hurt. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? And team coaches, well versed in the ways of the placebo effect, started surreptitiously encouraging the behavior. 

Pretty soon you had the New Zealand rugby team jumping up and down, hollering out the words to the Haka, a Ngati Toa tribal chant, wishing death to their enemies. Babe Ruth always touching all four bases in exactly the same spot when he rounded the bend so that there would be a next time for his home run stretch.

And Tiger Woods? Well back in his mom’s homeland, Thailand, red was a lucky color. And of course it was just coincidence that he always wore a red shirt on the last day of the tournament…

Hey, if it works for Tiger, can the fashion industry be far behind?

Superstition is the poetry of life.~~Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

You’ve come a long way, baby

Are men or women more superstitious? Good question! 

In 1928, intrepid researchers queried a freshman college class about their superstitions .  They found that women held many more superstitious beliefs for a longer period than their male counterparts. The authors said, “This is very likely due to the wider experience of men, that they have greater and more contact with facts and situations.” They went on to conclude that maybe, too, superstitions were perhaps a more womanly or feminine trait, and that men were shamed out such behavior early in adulthood.

However, in the 70s researchers found the same trend still holding. Women by-in-large were more superstitious. Now they attributed it to the ‘fact’ that obviously men had a finer sense of Internal Locus of Control, believing that they, in fact were masters of their own destiny.  Women, on the other hand, truly believed that they were helpless under fire and thus needed divine intervention in the form of superstition. 

It was not until recently that women started to catch up. Now researchers attributed it to the fact that women were becoming men’s equals in the business world and competed regularly in (still) segregated sports.  Therefore it was obvious that they  becoming more like men in their beliefs and thus less superstitious.

That wonderful sequence in the movie Bull Durham brings us full circle when Susan Sarandon caters to the rookie’s superstitions to get exactly what she wants. What is that French phrase? The more things change the more they remain the same.

Superstition is to religious what astrology is to astronomy: the mad daughter of a wise mother.~~Voltaire

Baby needs some new shoes

The reason why casinos have made such a big hit? Chalk it up to superstition. Skinner would be proud.

In Sticky Superstitions, author Erika Price draws the analogy between Skinner’s behavioral fixed and intermittent reinforcement schedules.

Say you have a vending machine. Put your dollar in and get a Coke. Put in another dollar and the machine malfunctions. Do you keep opening your billfold and donating to the Red Can Cause? Of course not!

Remember back to Psych 101. This is a fixed reinforcement. You expect that can to come clanging and when it doesn’t, you stop feeding it money. In Skinner’s terms, your behavior has been extinguished.

Now let’s stroll over to the local casino. You put a dollar token in the slot, pull the lever (or, less satisfactorily punch a button), the lights blink, the sound effects go bing-bang-boom and you get….nothing. 

Do you quit? Of course not! Because you know sooner or later that hunk of metal and plastic is going to spit out some birdseed for you. So you put in another dollar, and another, and then yes, indeed, at intermittent intervals, you are reinforced.

If you are inclined to be somewhat pigeon-like, your entrained behavior will keep you there long after wiser folk have headed to the all-you-can-eat buffet. This is your ‘lucky’ night! But suspicious? Of course not!

Men become superstitious, not because they have too much imagination, but because they are not aware that they have any.~~George Santayana

Rumor has it

Superstitions, like cockroaches, stick around for a long time. But as new developments are made in civilizations, superstitions adapt. The Internet brought its own form of superstitious beliefs in the form of —drumroll here—the Urban Legend.

Because of the ease of transmission, ads for Viagra are not the only thing piling up in your email Inbox. Got your filter set to filter out the Email chain mail? Good for you. I was always a wee bit nervous when I hit the ‘delete’ button on those puppies. Superstitious? Not me!

What about the emails from Nigeria promising ‘hundreds of millions’ if you only give them your bank account number, your SSN, and your first born’s birthdate (which just happens to be your password). Nope? Got that one covered?

Just for the fun of it, you might want to visit an intriguing website called These folks have done a wonderful job of tracking down all those tantalizing rumors that you want to believe are true.

Is Microsoft/AOL really giving away free money if you respond to this email? Nope.

Can they swipe your car’s automatic entry code when you beep the clicker? Not any more. Cars at one point were vulnerable until manufacturers wised up and started using a random rolling code. Rest easy. That stack of McDonald’s wrappers in the back seat are safe.

No, you can’t cook an egg between two cell phones. Sorry!

The superstition of science scoffs at the superstition of faith~~James Froude

Take it with a grain of salt

I think as you get older, and hopefully wiser, you sort through your superstitions like a pile of old Christmas cards—keeping the ones with the really good picture of the horse and sleigh in the snow and tossing the rest. I no longer worry about breaking my mother’s back with those sidewalk cracks. And I rarely remember to toss salt over my shoulder when I tip over the shaker.

But…I was in Buchardt Gardens in Victoria, Canada and came across this wonderful bronzed statue of a boar, bigger than life size. He stood by himself in the middle of a courtyard in a far corner of the garden. The Puget Sound rains had turned his coat a mossy green, but his nose was polished and shiny. The local superstition had it that if you kissed his snout, you got good luck for the next year. Did I do it? Well…next question, please!

It is bad luck to fall out of a thirteenth story window on Friday.~~Anonymous.


About Author, Pegasus Quincy Mystery Series

I write a mystery series about a young rookie deputy on her first assignment in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
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