I apologize for sounding like a carnival barker, but please sign up at secondacts.bulletin.com/subscribe to get free posts delivered to your inbox each week and read past articles. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
When he was running for president in 2008, John McCain was known to carry a lucky compass, lucky feather, wear lucky shoes and keep in his pocket a lucky penny and, for good measure, the lucky nickel he'd found when he first ran for president eight years earlier.
The superstitious behavior that year was bi-partisan. Barack Obama shot hoops for good luck on election days.
Basketball great Bill Russell would intentionally throw up before a game. A less legendary NBA player drank exactly half of a 2-gallon bottle of Mountain Dew before tip-off. Wade Boggs, the baseball Hall of a Fame third baseman, devoured chicken before every game. He played in 2,432 major league games. That's a lot of chicken.
I'm almost ashamed to confess that I am just as much a hostage to superstition, if not more so. I will not walk under a ladder. I will turn around if a black cat crosses my path. I dislike the number 13. Friday the 13th gives me the heebie-jeebies. (There's even a name for that. Triskaidekaphobia.)
Various polls suggest that one-third and slightly more than half of Americans consider themselves "superstitious." Belief in specific popular superstitions range from 7% who think it's unlucky to step on a crack ("break your mother's back") to 33% who subscribe to the notion that finding a penny is lucky. As for 13 being unlucky, 13% agreed, a coincidence I found more than a little weird.
For this article, I asked via Facebook for people to send in their personal superstitions. Here's a sampling of what I heard back:
When you are walking with someone, you don't ever walk on the opposite side of a pole because it's bad luck. If you do walk on opposite sides, you have to say "bread and butter," so you won't have bad luck.
Deanne Foster Culp
New Years Day, always eat collard greens and black eyed peas. Greens represent green money and peas, coins. Also, bad luck to wash clothes on New Years.
Roderick L. Granger
We were told as kids, be careful playing outside at night. A bat could lay eggs in your hair and you would go crazy.
Paying homage to my Gullah Geechee roots in Charleston, S.C., 1. pass the baby over the coffin so the deceased's spirit won't return to haunt the baby. 2. Hags are bad spirits that "ride" you at night. Most Charleston homes paint the ceiling of the porch light blue... Spirits (are) confused by the blue and won't enter the home.
Cathy Jo Haynes Bell
As a teenager, I always had to chew Bazooka bubble gum for Bruins games. I can't remember how or why it started. I think my persistence contributed to their Stanley Cup wins in 1970 and 1972.
When passing the salt at the table, never hand it to the person. Set it down on the table near him or her. This avoids passing on any bad luck.
When I turn up the volume on my TV, it's either 12 or 14. Never 13 which is the perfect volume. Nope. Just can't do it.
Right hand itching, you will get a pay out! Left hand itching, you will pay out!
Angela Jones Cannon
I always say Rabbit Rabbit right when I wake up on the first day of each month.
Hillary Yates DeMello
Now I was really curious. So, to try to get a better understanding of this phenomenon, I spoke to Stuart Vyse, (www.stuartvyse.com) a retired psychology professor who literally "wrote the book" -- several books, in fact -- on the history and psychology of superstition.
Vyse says people who believe in superstitions -- omens, lucky charms, rituals, jinxes, good and bad luck -- tend to be anxious, stressed and/or people seeking control over the vagaries of life. People who believe they can shape their own destinies tend not to be superstitious. People who believe they are largely at the whims of fate tend to be superstitious. Personality traits of those (us!) skew toward "depression, pessimism, neuroticism and fear of death," according to Vyse.
"We love control," he told me by phone last week. "We want control over things that we do in life and that's what superstition does. It gives you the illusion of some kind of additional control over whatever it is you're trying to accomplish."
Vyse says there is an important distinction between positive and negative superstitions. A positive superstition is Boggs eating chicken before baseball games or me wearing the same cap to Yankees games for as long as they kept winning.
A negative superstition is based on fear of something you see or do causing or risking misfortune, such as walking under a ladder or putting a hat on a bed. The former are generally harmless and may even be beneficial to the believers' performance by relaxing them. The latter tend to be anxiety-inducing and for good reason. They portend bad consequences.
"People feel better doing something to increase their luck," he said. "Good luck ones can be applied instrumentally in that you have got something coming up, you're going to perform on the baseball field or you're going to do something and employing a superstition at that time is likely to have a calming effect on you.
"The bad luck ones come of their own making. For the most part, they are a bad omen and you encounter them when they occur. Those bad luck superstitions, if you believe in them, they bring their own anxiety, which you then have to either face or do something."
Many superstitions, especially fear-based negative ones, date back centuries, even thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, opening an umbrella indoors was considered offensive to Ra, the God of Sun, who might strike you down for doing so. In Medieval times, black cats were associated with imminent death. It was also thought that witches could disguise themselves by turning into black cats.
In the Middle Ages, a ladder leaning against a wall formed a triangle which represented the trinity. Walking under it was considered blasphemous.
And the dreaded numeral, 13? The 13 guests at the Last Supper. Some say Judas was the 13th. The Friday, according to Yves, probably came from Friday being the day when prisoners were hanged in Europe. When the 13th falls on a Friday, it became "a double whammy."
Typically, we learn our superstitions from our parents, handed down like family heirlooms.
Professor Vyse, an avowed non-believer, says the paradox is that so many people still cling to these beliefs in the face of science and a popular notion that superstitions are, well, ridiculous.
"There are people who are superstitious and are non-believers," he said. "A group of people who will say, 'I know this doesn't make sense. I know this is silly, but I will feel better if it do this.'"
Superstitions are also supported by the very human proclivity for confirmation bias. Simply put, when we adhere to a superstition and it seems to work, we remember it and chalk it up to the omen. When it fails, we forget about it. I once wore my "lucky" Brooklyn Nets winter scarf to 14 straight games that they won. I was still wearing that heavy scarf to games in 70 degree weather in April. When they finally lost, I put it away. The next season, I resumed wearing it with poor results, yet still couldn't quite dismiss the possibility the scarf had helped win those 14 games. And I like to think I'm a rational person.
An intriguing variation on superstition is the jinx, the belief that doing something rash or presumptuous will backfire.
I heard from a few people on Facebook who said police officers, and doctors and nurses in hospitals refuse to ever say things are quiet.
When it appears a pitcher in baseball is hurling a no-hitter, his teammates won't say it, sometimes won't talk to him at all, or sit near him in the dugout.
Vyse cites a study that found that people tended to believe that wearing the tee-shirt of a college to which you had applied would make it less likely the school will accept you.
The jinx is a warning not to tempt fate.
I asked Professor Vyse what was the wackiest superstition he ever heard of in his nearly 30 years studying the subject.
It was a friend and classmate in graduate school who collected the fingernail clippings of his family members, as well as his own, and ate them.
"His view was that someone might do harm to his family (by getting them)," he said. "There is a contagious idea that if something was once connected to or in contact with a person can have a magical influence on them. It's a basic principle of sympathetic magic."
Kind of makes you want to give up superstitions.
cover photo credit: Getty Images