Are You Superstitious? Are You Stupid?

Maybe. And no. Your brain can dance the two-step, believing and disbelieving at the same time, a new paper explains.
Photograph: Getty Images

Airlines lose more than 10,000 customers on Friday the 13th, and people's fear of doing business on the supposedly unlucky day costs close to $1 billion, one study found. People who are about to make a risky bet are likelier to pause if they think about Friday the 13th than if they think about some neutral day. 

Crazy, right?

Not necessarily. Behavioral scientist Jane Risen says it's simply a matter of the rational part of the brain giving in to the irrational part. In other words, we know better, but we allow superstitions to have their way.

"People can detect an error but choose not to correct it, a process I refer to as acquiescence," Risen, a behavioral scientist and a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, writes in the latest issue of the academic journal Psychological Review. 

Her article, "Believing What We Do Not Believe: Acquiescence to Superstitious Beliefs and Other Powerful Intuitions," departs from the conventional wisdom in psychology. Traditionally, she says, "researchers have treated magical thinking as a cognitive deficit or even a form of psychopathology."

But so many "smart, educated, emotionally stable adults believe superstitions," she thought we needed a better explanation. "More than half of surveyed Americans, for example, admit to knocking on wood and almost one quarter avoid walking under ladders," she writes. (The figures on the economic impact of triskaidekophobia are from research cited in her paper.)

Risen adopts the System 1 and System 2 typology of Daniel Kahneman, the Princeton University psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in economics. The fast, intuitive System 1 occasionally generates magical thinking. The slow, rational System 2 corrects the mistakes. Psychologists have asserted that superstition is a symptom of a lazy or ignorant System 2.

No, Risen says. System 2 can be working perfectly in detecting flawed thinking. Nonetheless, people "acquiesce" in the more powerful System 1 and wear their Patriots jerseys in front of the TV every Sunday to help Tom Brady complete more passes. Risen co-authored an op-ed piece on her research in the New York Times on Oct. 30.

Think you're invulnerable to superstitious thinking? Try saying this out loud:

I won't be hit by a speeding Mercedes-Benz today, and neither will anyone close to me.

Or pour sugar into a jar and label it Sodium Cyanide, Poison. Now give a spoonful of the poison—I mean sugar—to a child.

What, a little nervous?

Risen repeats a famous story (which may even be true) of the great physicist Niels Bohr hanging a horseshoe over his door. A visitor says, "Niels, it can't possibly be that you, a brilliant scientist, believe that foolish horseshoe superstition!?!" "Of course not," Bohr replies. "But I understand it's lucky whether you believe in it or not." 

Risen admits that she can be superstitious herself. She wants to shush announcers when they point out that her Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers are doing well, fearing they'll break the spell. "I have the 'Don’t say that' " reaction, she says. "Followed immediately by the, 'Oh, it doesn't matter.' "

One way to overcome your weakness for superstition, Risen says, is to set yourself a policy for how you're going to behave in certain situations, and stick to it — because if you take cases one at a time, you're more likely to succumb to superstition. It's like the advice to dieters: Setting yourself a rule of no after-dinner snacks, ever, makes it easier to resist temptation.

Just don't try any new coping strategies on Friday the 13th. Because, you know, that would be bad luck.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.