Do Superstitious Rituals Work?

Dec 12, 2017

By Stuart Vyse

Let us stipulate that there is no magic. Sleight-of-hand, deception, illusion, and conjuring, yes, but no “real” magic. On this, most science-minded people agree. But when it comes to superstition, there has always been an additional, less obvious question. Of course, superstitions do not have a magical effect on the world, but do they have psychological benefits? Could superstitions make difficult situations easier to handle? Furthermore, if they have an emotional or psychological benefit, could they also produce better performance in situations where skill is involved? The psychological benefits of superstitions—if they exist—would not be expected to change your luck at the roulette wheel, but perhaps an actor’s pre-performance ritual could reduce anxiety, allowing for better acting.

Despite several decades of research on superstition, these questions remained unanswered for many years. Most researchers assumed superstitions were irrational and focused their attentions on discovering why people were superstitious. It was often assumed that there might be some direct psychological benefits of superstition, but these were rarely studied.

Then in 2010 there was a great advance—or so it seemed. Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany conducted the now famous golf ball study (Damisch et al. 2010). Participants were given a putter and asked to hit a golf ball into a cup on the carpet of a laboratory. Half the participants were handed a ball and told, “This ball has been lucky today.” The other half were told “This is your ball.” As it turned out, more than 80 percent of the German participants reported believing in the concept of good luck, and when the results were tallied, the researchers discovered that participants in the lucky ball group sank significantly more of their putts than the other group. Furthermore, Damisch et al. replicated this result with different tasks and several different luck-activating superstitions. Of course, there still was no magic, but these studies seemed to have demonstrated that believing in luck gave participants the confidence to perform better than they otherwise would. A phenomenon long speculated to be a possibility had finally been demonstrated in a laboratory setting.

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32 comments on “Do Superstitious Rituals Work?

  • @OP – Do Superstitious Rituals Work?

    We indulge in all sorts of ritual habits which reduce the need for thinking things through from scratch.

    I have various places I put regularly used objects, and provided the procedures have been followed – and no-one else has meddled with them, tools, spare parts, etc. can be immediately located and put into use when unexpectedly needed. This allows a much better focus on planning and progressing the job in hand without peripheral distractions!

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  • Now then Alan, with all due respect and you know I would never challenge your comment without good reason to do so, but it does occur to me that there is another completely different explanation for your superb level of organization in the carpentry workshop and after all, I do believe I hold the distinction of being the unofficial psychology major around here. You would do well to consider the following diagnosis and discard any consideration of superstition:

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  • Darn. Video not available to scummy Limeys. Phil Hartman too!

    I am mystified by how people remember the stuff of everyday life. Its rather sad it doesn’t stick in my head, though at least the kids don’t have to wear those badges any longer. I know the extended upturned hand marks them out as mine.

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  • LaurieB #2
    Dec 12, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    How is that description to be described as superstition?
    It’s just good organizational skills.

    When we think of early metal workers, or tribal medicine men, they have a series of actions, and a selection of materials, which they pass on to apprentices.

    Some of those actions are likely to be essential to a successful process, but others may just be folk-law.
    However, the recipients of the knowledge, probably do not know what is ritual habit and what is an essential part of the process, so rather than risk failure and the waste of a huge amount of effort, they copy the lot, and hand on the process combined with the ritual elements. to future generations.
    In folk medicines, they may lose ALL the active ingredients in passing on a garbled message, or there may not have been any in the first place, but the tribe had faith in the medicine man because he had shown apparent success in other treatments. (which may or may not have been placebos or coincidences.)

    Your good organization leads to success directly.

    But it does not necessarily appear efficient!

    In any particular job many tools or parts may be unused.

    It is only when a tool or procedure is needed for a particular job that its absence will be obvious. Some may never be needed!

    That is how seemingly unnecessary actions or materials come to be included as a ritual habit, by those who take a long-term view.

    There is an old saying. “The important leg on a three-legged stool, is the one that’s missing!”

    There is also the joke among “tidiers”, that a part/tool which has been thrown away after being unused and in the shed for 20 years, is the one you go looking for next week when something breaks!

    You would do well to consider the following diagnosis and discard any consideration of superstition:

    I would not regard these sorts of actions as necessarily “superstitious”, but they are copying (like god-delusions) with patching over the ignorance of largely unpredictable events, as a means of coping with them.

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  • Walking under a ladder? Never has been a good idea.
    Stepping on a crack? That’s a good way to trip and fall.
    Don’t cross the path of a black cat? All cats are trying to kill us by tripping us.
    Breaking a mirror is seven years of bad luck? It so happens that is about the time it takes a scar to disappear.

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  • I’ve had dreams that predicted the future. I’ve seen faces of obscure people from my past in dreams, people that I hadn’t seen or heard mentioned in many years. Then the next day I will hear their name will come up in a conversation. This has happened to me numerous times. Numerous times. Or I will see or hear a number, say forty-three, in a dream. Then the next day, I will hear someone shout “forty-three!” and I’ll be startled, reminded of the dream. Weird. Coincidence? Probably….

    Could it be that “magic” is a word used, on such occasions, for something that is natural but inexplicable at the present time?

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  • Dan, just before 9-11, I had a dream where I saw two 747’s coming in for a crash.
    I also had a dream before the “battle in Seattle” where I was held up in a store during the riots.
    However, I believe the brain comes up with so many scenarios while we are sleeping and stored in our memory.
    During the day, those memories are triggered.
    Truth is, there were four planes in the 9-11 event. So the two planes, prove what? Nothing.

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  • …the next day I will hear their name come up…

    I’ll see someone that no one’s mentioned since I was five. Then the next day someone will say: “I wonder what ever happened to so-and-so? He was a character.” And it doesn’t seem like a coincidence. It’s actually bizarre.

    Dan, just before 9-11, I had a dream where I saw two 747’s coming in for a crash.

    For planes, not two? Two hit the towers. I’d say that that was pretty bizarre. Why not just say “it’s weird” and let it go as that, rather than dismiss it altogether as a meaningless coincidence.

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  • Four, not for.

    Dreaming about two planes, rather than four, crashing right before 911 proves nothing but is odd indeed. That’s all. (What do you expect, perfection? Should you have dreamt you heard the real names of the pilots too?)

    Okay, Laurie. Think of another between one and ten – right now. Got it? Now don’t look (below).

    Nine! Right? I have ESP! I’m psychic.

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  • Dan, my point is, if it had been one plane, it still would have been a “symbol’ to some.
    If it had been four it would have triggered some.
    Three is the only number that had no meaning.

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  • I’m thinking of a number between one and ten. What is it?

    Ten! That’s right.

    Now how did I do that? How does one think of a number, of anything?

    Science is more interesting than the supernatural. – Generally speaking.

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  • LaurieB #2
    Dec 12, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    How is that description to be described as superstition? It’s just good organizational skills. Your good organization leads to success directly.

    Laurie, you have to cut him a bit of slack. You know he’s getting very old now and usually just copies and pastes stuff from news sites. Obviously when he tries for an original thought it’s going to be problematic. We must all learn to be forgiving for people with auld timer’s disease. 🙂

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  • Dan,

    How does one think of a number, of anything?

    For most folk its a least effort thing. Ten is in your head last. It passes the test given so ten it is. Brains use 20% of our energy so we are all evolved to use least intellectual effort especially with no prospect of reward. Put money on the outcome and different answers will tend to appear.

    Seven for me. And invariably a prime number. So between zero and a hundred its 37 almost always. This is just a habit having thought about these things fairly often. Now I’ll have to come up with something different…

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  • Dan, do you have, or can you get hold of a copy of, Richard Dawkins’ book, Unweaving the Rainbow?

    If so, turn to the chapter called Unweaving the Uncanny, which deals with this sort of question in some depth and in Richard’s usual clear and highly accessible style.

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  • On the dreaming of planes crashing the night before 911:

    Anxiety dreams are extremely common: on any given night, literally hundreds of millions of people around the world will have one. Sometimes they seem unconnected to any specific fear we’re conscious of, but sometimes they are clearly linked.


    According to some estimates, as many as 25 percent of all Americans suffer some nervousness about flying but the National Institute of Mental Health says this fear, usually called aviophobia, affects just 6.5 percent of the population. Did I say “just”? That’s more than 20 million people! [i.e. in America alone].

    Now, that article was written in 2013. In 2001 the population of the USA was rather smaller, around 285 million, of which, using the 6.5% figure, around 18.5 million would have been aviophobics. That would have been 18.5 million obvious candidates for an anxiety dream about a plane crash every single night.

    But note that, given the source of the statistic and the use of the term ‘aviophobia’, the 6.5% probably excludes the far larger numbers of people who are just mildly or occasionally afraid of flying – i.e. who experience a level of anxiety about it that isn’t extreme enough to be classified as a phobia.

    Now, clearly, not even all those 18.5 million aviophobic Americans are going to dream about a plane crash every night. But let’s conservatively estimate that 50% of them will do so at least once a year. 18.5 million x 50% = 9,250,000 plane crash dreams per year in America alone. 25,342 in any given night.

    And that isn’t allowing for the remaining 266.5 million American who weren’t clinically aviophobic, but many of whom will undoubtedly also have had the occasional air plane crash dream. It is, after all, a very common dream motif, one I’ve had myself on occasion, despite not being remotely aviophobic (not consciously, anyway).

    Let’s say that 1% of the 266.5 million non-aviophobic Americans have plane crash dreams at least once a year. That’s 2.67 million additional plane crash dreams per year, which equates to another 7315 plan crash dreams on any given night.

    So on any given night in 2001 – including the night of 10th September – on highly conservative estimates, at least 32,657 Americans would have dreamt of a plane crash.

    And according to there were 10 plane crashes or other major aviation-related scares in the US in 2001.

    With the hindsight of knowing there was a plane crash the next day, it’s understandable that many of those dreamers will feel there was some kind of spooky connection between their dream and the crash. But since those dreams are happening in very significant numbers every single night anyway, it would actually be far spookier if no one claimed to have dreamt of a plane crash the night before one actually happened.

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  • Arkrid

    Laurie, you have to cut him a bit of slack. You know he’s getting very old now

    Old? How old? I’m no spring chicken myself FYI. ! If he gets a break then I want one too. Only fair! I know people who are a decade older than myself who can run in cognitive circles around me. One of them has his name on this website. No slack will be forthcoming!!! hahahah! Into the fray!!!

    We must all learn to be forgiving for people with auld timer’s disease.

    The best we can do for them is to engage them to their limit with challenging interaction. Hopefully it’s positive interaction but even a certain amount of negative interaction is better than nothing.

    In light of this, let’s make it known that when we all challenge every single thing that Alan says, then we are doing him the most high minded favor that could ever be done. Alan. You’re welcome. 😀

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  • Unweaving the Rainbow. Don’t have that one. I’ll order a copy. I love Dawkins’ books and his writing style. Thanks, Marco.

    I wasn’t asking how we think of one number as opposed to another number. I was asking how it is possible to produce a thought, any thought, how the miracle of consciousness is possible. Don’t try to explain; just asking the question.

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  • Arkrid, at least you can’t tell I stutter and pause for minutes while I’m posting………
    Losing your memory isn’t that bad. It will come in handy when Trump is gone.
    Is this rip on Alan day?

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  •  LaurieB #22
    Dec 13, 2017 at 10:49 am
    In light of this, let’s make it known that when we all challenge every single thing that Alan says, then we are doing him the most high minded favor that could ever be done. 

    Indeed so! As you may recall, some of the most lively and informative debates illustrating rational and irrational thinking, have come about, when theist apologists, or science deniers – filled with Dunning-Kruger confidence, have turned up on this site to challenge Phil, myself, and a few others, with their “superior thinking and understanding” about the workings of the world!


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    The various threads feel to be becoming rather chaotic at the moment, with multiple links to all sorts of other stories only loosely connected to the OP and/or the same comments turning up or linked to in multiple threads, and/or with increasing amounts of chat.

    The Open Discussion threads were specifically created – at the request of a number of regular users – to be a catch-all for subjects not currently covered by any of the individual threads, so it feels frustrating that, since they’ve been in place, there seems to have been less order and focus on the other threads rather than more. And chat is always a no-no. We may turn a blind eye to the odd chatty comment, but the problem is that as soon as other users start replying to it, it can quickly get out of hand. And we really do want the comments on these threads to shed thoughtful light and commentary on the specific subjects of them.

    May we please ask everyone to help us with the housekeeping? That means only posting on-topic comments on the named threads; not putting the same comment on multiple threads, even if they are on closely related topics (it’s just not necessary when multiple threads are live at the same time); being conscientious about using the Open Discussion thread as the catch-all for everything else; and keeping comments focused rather than letting them drift off into chat.

    Thank you!

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  • With respect, I am struggling to understand how the Orthodox Jewish
    superstitious rituals of Shabbat, kosher, and niddah, are unrelated to
    this thread on superstitious rituals.

    Fair point, Alan, but please see our message above about the outbreak of chaos on the site. We’re beginning to feel dizzy with all the “look here, no, look here, and here, and here” that’s going on. Besides which, that OP was comprehensively discussed at the time, and this OP is coming at the subject from a different perspective, focusing on a different angle. It would be good to at least have chance to have a new and differently focused discussion on the subject rather than merely rehashing an old one.

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  • We very much appreciate your good intentions behind the multiple links, Alan, and we’re not saying they’re never appropriate or helpful. But we would like there to be proper discussion of the OPs, and not just a list of vaguely similar stories, especially when OPs are first posted and haven’t yet been properly discussed in their own right. As you know, we are more relaxed about the discussion veering slightly off-topic once the OP has been properly discussed.

    But if there are too many different stories in a single thread, the discussion can end up too generic and the specific focus of the OP can end up being overlooked. There’s also a risk that the discussion ends up being too similar to too many other discussions that have already taken place, and/or that the other links can become a distraction from the OP rather than an enhancer of it. When there are multiple threads on related subjects, they are generally on slightly different aspects of those subjects, or reflecting latest developments. They’re not just repeats of what has already been posted and discussed before.

    There’s absolutely no problem posting links to other stories on the Open Discussion thread.

    The mods

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  • Moderator #28
    Dec 13, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    We’re beginning to feel dizzy with all the “look here, no, look here, and here, and here” that’s going on.

    I appreciate that, but sometimes there are very similar articles on the same or closely related subjects, where the same comments would apply, but strictly speaking multiple posts are not allowed.
    I also try to consider assisting choices for those lurkers, who only come to read posts, rather participating in commenting.

    A present example is the “Roy Moore: The eyes of the world are on Alabama election” and the “Once a Long Shot, Democrat Doug Jones Wins Alabama Senate Race”, where my comments on Doug Jones would have been better posted on the : “Once a Long Shot, Democrat Doug Jones Wins Alabama Senate Race” thread, but this did not appear on the site until after I had written and posted the comment on the earlier discussion.

    Perhaps some posters who do not use my system of placing different threads in multiple tabs and multiple windows, would have difficulty with handling lots of links.

    On the old RDFS site, there used to be a list of related discussions in the OPs, so some crossover or wider coverage of topics was easily possible.
    Some times I put links to suggest a follow-on from an earlier thread, to try to continue a topic on the later thread.

    Other times I put on a comment to try start a discussion rather than leave a topic without any comments.

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  • @OP – Let us stipulate that there is no magic. Sleight-of-hand, deception, illusion, and conjuring, yes, but no “real” magic.

    Speaking of Orthodox Jews, superstitions, rituals, and confidence in magic, there is a practical test going on!

    Israel’s Agriculture Minister, Uri Ariel, has joined with the country’s religious leaders in an attempt to use the power of prayer to end a drought.

    Mr Ariel is an Orthodox Jew and led prayers on Thursday at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

    Severe drought for four years has left the country’s water supplies at low levels.

    Critics said the minister should tackle the crisis more practically.

    Israel’s drought has had a significant impact on farming communities and caused the country to become reliant on its desalination plants on its Mediterranean coast.

    “We significantly lowered the cost of water, we are carrying out many studies on how to save water in different crops, but prayer can certainly help,” Mr Ariel said.

    The newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth wrote: “Prayer is not a bad thing, but the minister has the ability to influence [matters] in slightly more earthly ways” – such as promoting policies to reduce climate change, it suggested.

    Ah! It seems that Trump and the Koch Bros climate pseudo-science propaganda campaigns, have conferred more on Israel than just a spurious claim that Jerusalem can be internationally recognised as the Capital of Israel!

    Still perhaps Trump can join in their prayers!
    Let’s see what prayer can do about a 4 year drought?

    As the deserts migrate towards the poles in a warming climate, I wonder if the climate will be impressed by prayer and ritual? 🙂 – Perhaps throw in a few additional rain-dances for greater effect?

    As I recall, In 2011, governor Rick Perry signed a proclamation asking Texans to pray for rain. ..
    ” Perry’s previous attempts to invoke a higher power suggest that there are limits to the power of prayer. In April, he declared a three-day vigil for rain in Texas. But those prayers have so far gone unanswered, and the state is still suffering its worst drought … [ › 7 Aug 2011 US News › Rick Perry]

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  • Alan, if this magic in the sky worked, I would have joined the cult long ago. Like you I live in a rain zone.
    We don’t see the blue sky until April.
    And Noah was worried about forty days and forty nights? That would be a short shower.

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