20 September 2014


Stuart Vyse. Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Oxford University Press, 2014.

This is a revised edition of a work originally published in 1997. Vyse begins by discussing Wade Boggs, a baseball player who set some records that have never been equalled. His “professional life was filled with superstition”. Believing that he hit better after eating chicken, he consumed it every day.
He also had a long “pre-game ritual” (which I don’t quite understand, not being familiar with the terminology of baseball).

Vyse might similarly have mentioned Norman Parkinson, who in the 1970s was the official portrait photographer of the Royal Family. He would never pick up a camera unless he was wearing a fumi, an embroidered skullcap popular in parts of the Middle East. He believed that it would be bad luck to try to work without this headgear. It is easy to jeer at men like Boggs and Parkinson, but they did reach the summits of their respective professions.

Superstitions are more common with people whose life is uncertain or risky, for example “gamblers, sailors, soldiers, miners, financial investors, and, somewhat surprisingly, college students.” I seem to recall that, decades after Donald Campbell drowned in Lake Coniston during an attempt to break the world waterspeed record, divers finally recovered his body, along with his lucky mascot, which evidently had not worked on that occasion.

As to students, whilst “conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers”, there is clearly a strong element of chance with exams: you may get a question on a topic you happened to revise that morning, or you may get a question on your weakest subject. Another uncertain profession is acting. Most actors are unemployed for much of the time, and when they do have work there are plenty of things that can go wrong.

For convenience, psychology professors frequently do tests on their own students. One wonders about this, since psychology undergraduates are probably not entirely representative of the human race as a whole, and knowing what is going on, may deliberately try to skew the results.

Vyse states that children’s “rituals of avoidance of cracks in sidewalks . . . must have been passed from person to person”. I cannot agree: I developed this habit at age five or six, and I am fairly sure that no-one had told me to do it, so it must be somehow instinctive. It was only later that I read A. A. Milne’s poem ‘Lines and Squares’ (in When We Were Very Young, 1924), about a boy who believed that, if he “steps on a line” he would be eaten by bears. In my case I thought that a bomb would explode, although eventually I noticed that, when my thoughts were elsewhere, I had trodden on lines, but nothing untoward had ensued. Even in middle age I occasionally find myself treading carefully for this kind of reason.

A woman recently told me that, when a girl, she believed that, if she trod on a crack, the ground would open and the earth would swallow her up. If this kind of superstition were passed from person to person, one would expect that the anticipated disaster would always be the same. Nevertheless, superstitions are, as he says, likely to be acquired by membership of a social group, where, as has been shown by many psychological experiments, there is a tendency to go along with the others. (I would also query his assertion that dice rolling is “completely random”. Whole books have been written about cheating at dice.)

Some birth horoscopes contain statements that must be true of almost anyone – “Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic” – but people find them impressive. There are also some totally weird ideas, such as that “Dick Cheney was involved in the 9/11 attacks.” In short, I would suggest that these notions are believed in because they are emotionally appealing, rather than because they are supported by facts and reasoning. – Gareth J. Medway.

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