Luck and Superstition

People have searched for effective ways to improve the good fortune in their lives from time immemorial…

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This article examines various different superstitions in the UK and investigates whether there can be any truth in superstitious beliefs. It goes on to examine superstition’s place within British society and whether luck can ever be more than an abstract concept. 

Superstition originated in a time when people thought luck was a strange force that could only be controlled by magical rituals and bizarre behaviours.[1] Superstition was, and remains, widespread in most cultures across the world. Some superstitious beliefs have passed into history whilst others continue to be practiced today. Particularly unusual superstitions from around the world include one from Turkey involving night-time mastication (mastication is the process of chewing). In Turkey chewing gum at night equates to chewing the flesh of the dead. If that superstition does not appeal to you, never fear, there is no reason to believe that new superstitions will not emerge and gradually replace current ones.

Superstitions in historic Britain varied from the innocuous to the distinctly unhealthy. The well-known rhyme of 1-7 magpies: One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never told, is only one version of many magpie-inspired rhymes that were once told in the British Isles. Some versions of the rhyme counted as high as 20 birds.[2] In Ancient Britain, women carried acorns in their pockets to stay looking young because they thought that oak trees could provide longevity and ward off illnesses. More recently, many 19th century Englishmen avoided eating salads because they thought that lettuce was detrimental to their fertility.[3]

According to a study undertaken by Professor Richard Wiseman of the Psychology Department at the University of Hertfordshire[4] 77% of people in the UK are “at least a little superstitious” and/or carried out some form of superstitious behaviour.  Touching wood is the U.K.’s most popular superstition. 74% of people surveyed said that they practiced this superstition, followed by crossing fingers (65%), avoiding ladders (50%), not smashing mirrors (39%), carrying a lucky charm (28%) and having superstitious beliefs about the number 13 (26%). 

Belief in superstition is not uniform across the UK, gender or age group. The Scots are the most superstitious, with 46% saying they are “very/somewhat superstitious”, followed by the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish. Women are more superstitious than men, 51% of women said that they were very/somewhat superstitious compared to just 29% of men. It is widely believed that women are more superstitious than men because, sadly, they tend to have lower self-esteem and less perceived control over their lives. 59% of children aged 11-15 said they were superstitious, compared to 44% of people aged 31-40 and just 35% of people aged 50+. Aside from nationality, gender and age, evidence suggests that some people are more likely to be superstitious than others. Superstitious people tend to worry about life, have a strong need for control, and have a low tolerance for ambiguity.[5]

Whilst many of us continue to practice these superstitious beliefs, nearly all of us have forgotten their origins. The superstition of touching wood dates back to pagan times when rituals were performed to try to elicit the support of benign and powerful tree gods. Crossing fingers makes the sign of the cross and dates back to early Christian times. Two people, instead of one, used to cross index fingers when making a wish. A friend would cross their finger with the friend making the wish in an act of solidarity. The superstition of avoiding walking under ladders is also influenced by Christian tradition. A ladder propped up against a wall forms a natural triangle and all triangles used to be seen as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Walking under a ladder was seen as breaking the symbol and was therefore considered unlucky.[6]

It is unclear why magpies are the centre of so much superstitious belief in 21st century Britain. Magpies steal shiny objects, often cheap rubbish such as tin foil, but occasionally expensive items such as jewellery, for their nests. It is probable that this unusual behaviour brought them to the attention of previous generations who thought that they must be possessed by spirits. The fact that magpies are incredibly intelligent, as was conclusively proved in 2008 when magpies became the first non-mammal species shown to be capable of self-recognition,[7] can only have added to their mystique. 

Many superstitions seem to incorporate a logical safety improvement alongside a religious tradition. This could have helped ensure some superstitions’ survival whilst others have been forgotten. For example, not walking under ladders results, generally speaking, in you being safer. The same goes, to a lesser degree, with opening umbrellas indoors. You are more likely to hurt yourself and objects around you if you walk around a house with an open umbrella than if you walk around a house with one closed. 

Over 4.5 million Brits believe having a lucky number brings them good fortune.[8] The top five lucky numbers are 7, 13, 3, 8 and 5. David Beckham is known to be amongst those British people who favour the number 7. He always used to play in the number 7 shirt for England and has even given his only daughter the middle name ‘Seven’. The number 13 is considered unlucky because there were thirteen people at Christ’s Last Supper.[9] The origins of the fear of 666, ‘The Devil’s Number’, are less clear. In the Bible the number 666 is given to the ‘Beast’ within the Book of Revelations. It is possible that the writer of the Book of Revelations was writing to persecuted Christians in code, so the numbers and names in the book are contemporary references. The writer Stephanie Pappas refers to academic work suggesting that three sixes in a row is probably the numeric equivalent of the Hebrew letters for the first-century Roman Emperor Nero, famous for his cruelty and persecution of Christians.[10]

Superstitions based on lucky numbers or meaningless abstract constructs such as magpies do not work because they are based on outdated and incorrect thinking. Science and technology have proven that luck is not a magical ability or the result of random chance. However, it is possible that superstitions can improve performance in skill-based contests if it affects the mind-set of players. For many people wearing lucky underwear, wearing socks inside out, or wearing a lucky football shirt will change their mood and provide a real boost in performance during a competition.[11] Unfortunately for players seeking to improve their performance, copying the superstitious custom of a fellow team player or coach, such as the custom of wearing lucky underwear, will not improve performance levels unless the player convinces themselves that the superstition is true. 

In the gambling sector performance-enhancing superstitions can only help if there is an element of skill involved. It is possible that people might improve their performance in poker if a superstition boosted their confidence levels. It is impossible for superstitions to boost performance levels in games such as bingo and slots where the odds are predetermined. Popular superstitious notions in gambling such as ‘beginner’s luck’ can be proved to be false. Superstitions that are based on past experiences, like ‘beginner’s luck’, often arise because of a psychological phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon which describes the way in which people are more likely to remember events that conform to their worldview. People who believe in ‘beginner’s luck’ usually do so because they remember the times when their predictions turn out to be true and forget the times when their predictions turn out to be false.[12]

Superstitious beliefs remain widespread in the UK, even amongst the scientific community.[13] Luck is often still seen as an abstract force that can be separated from the inevitable probabilities that will result from various actions. Yet, as I have shown in this article, this is not the case. The only time superstition can help improve your chances is when it has the potential to improve your frame of mind and your performance has the capability to improve the odds. There are several reasons why superstition continues to be believed. One, mentioned earlier, is confirmation bias, another is the fact that many people would rather blame poor performance on bad luck rather than on personal limitations, lack of preparedness or unfavourable odds.[14] There is, however, a more indirect reason why luck is still considered so important in British society. We do not always appreciate the reasons why some people are more successful than others. Consequently we attribute other people’s success to luck. 

People who society defines as lucky are more likely to be skilled at creating, noticing and evaluating chance opportunities, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations and adopt resilient mind-sets. They tend to be more laid-back than anxious people. This allows them to notice unexpected opportunities which anxious people tend to overlook because their attention is too narrowly focused.[15] ‘Lucky people’ also tend to be good networkers, skilled at increasing the number of chance encounters they make which in turn improve their career, social or romantic lives.[16]

In conclusion, superstition rarely has any basis in truth. However, it has the potential to improve mind-set and thus performance in skill-based competitions. Superstition only has the potential to improve your performance in gambling games such as poker. It cannot help you in gambling games such as bingo and slots where the odds are predetermined. What is essential in any gambling game is to know your odds. Remember that whilst you may make large winnings gambling online, in the long-term you will almost certainly lose money. Gambling companies operate to make a profit and it is thus very important to gamble responsibly. If you feel you, or someone close to you, is suffering from problem gambling then you must seek advice. 

I would like to end by wishing all you responsible gamblers out there nothing but the very best of luck!

 


[1] Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘The Luck Factor’, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2003.

[2] ‘British Bird Lovers: Magpies And Superstition’, retrieved on 30 July 2014 from http://www.britishbirdlovers.co.uk/articles/magpies-and-superstition.

[3] ’13 Strange Superstitions: Bizarre beliefs from around the world’, retrieved on 30 July 2014 from http://www.stylist.co.uk/life/13-strange-superstitions#image-rotator-1.

[4] Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘U.K. Superstition Survey’, retrieved on 30 July 2014 from http://www.richardwiseman.com/resources/superstition_report.pdf.

[5] Pappas, S. (2012) ’13 Common (But Silly) Superstitions’, retrieved on 29 July 2014 from http://www.livescience.com/14141-13-common-silly-superstitions.html.

[6] Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘The Luck Factor’, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2003.

[7] BBC (2008) ‘Magpie “can recognise reflection”’, 19 August.

[8] Berrill, A. (2012) ‘Isn’t it all Pants? One in six superstitious Brits refuse to walk under ladders, while over 800,000 admit to having lucky underwear’, The Daily Mail, 9 November.

[9] Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘The Luck Factor’, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2003.

[10] Pappas, S (2012) ’13 Common (But Silly) Superstitions’, retrieved on 29 July 2014 from http://www.livescience.com/14141-13-common-silly-superstitions.html.

[11] Berrill, A. (2012) ‘Isn’t it all Pants? One in six superstitious Brits refuse to walk under ladders, while over 800,000 admit to having lucky underwear’, The Daily Mail, 9 November.

[12] Pappas, S. (2012) ’13 Common (But Silly) Superstitions’, retrieved on 29 July 2014 from http://www.livescience.com/14141-13-common-silly-superstitions.html.

[13] Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘U.K. Superstition Survey’, retrieved on 30 July 2014 from http://www.richardwiseman.com/resources/superstition_report.pdf.

[14] BBC World Service (2009) ‘Superstitions: Friday 13th – unlucky for you?’

[15] Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘The Luck Factor’, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2003.

[16] Wiseman, R. (2003) ‘It really is a small world to live in’, The Telegraph, 4 June.

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