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by Mark Edward, Nov 12 2008

I have always been fascinated with superstitions. As a kid I wanted to open up a superstition collection agency, but I became a magician instead. It could be argued that the two interests are similarly related. Perhaps this blog or a Skeptologists program could take a closer look at superstitions? By that I don’t mean all the walk-under-a-ladder and throw-salt-over-your-shoulder superstitions we already know about and probably practice even though we think we know better, being skeptics and all that. I mean the really brain hard-wired day to day things we do without thinking because something intangible might have been handed down to us through generations of just doing it and we went ahead and tacitly accepted it for some unknown reason. Particular interest to me are the newer things that may have come around to being accpeted and believed in today’s “more enlightened” society. I remember there was once an agency like this for collecting and verifying predictions that someone in New York City kept for some odd reason, but I think they eventually went out of business. I doubt they predicted that.

There’s probably a million websites that handle the standard run of black cat type superstitions, but what’s new in the world or woo when it comes to modern fear and dread? What do we avoid saying or doing that has absolutely no rational reason to exist? All the countless urban legends out there certainly must have sprouted a few tentacles that reach into this area of the mass subconscious, but which are the beliefs that have managed to trickle down to our semi-conscious minds and how exactly did they get there? Forget about religion or spirituality, that’s just too big an issue for one program or blog. It’s those little crazy twitchy things like knocking on wood – but contemporary non-grammatical physical idioms (from the root word idiot?) that I’m after.

I once pitched an idea for a quick two minute spot for radio using this concept; a kind of Paul-Harvey-of the-Bizarre segment, only covering a daily superstition by talking about the where, when and how it originated. I was told by the station manager at the time that there were strict FCC laws against promulgating such thoughts and my pet project was quickly shot down despite the fact that the same syndicated radio station ran a live psychic call-in show seven nights a week. Go figure. I know this is true because I covered the Saturday night shift, but that’s another story…

Suggestion, pseudo-mesmesrism, hallucinations, hypnotism, suspended animation, subliminal advertising and all manner of Coast to Coast weirdness could conceivably fall into this catagory and that’s the problem. Where would we draw the line? I’m not that interested in Big Foot’s shoe size or whether or not Elvis liked peanut butter and banana sandwiches and its relationship to his sex life. That’s conjecture. I would like to hear about and investigate those unsubstantiated knee-jerk reflex-based behaviors that reflect what’s going on in today’s mixed up world.

Take for example: why do we need to know that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” on our rearview mirrors? Yes, I know there’s a perfectly solid scientific reason having to do with the fish-eye quality of the mirror and I appreciate the warning on some level, but stuff like that just makes me needlessly paranoid. Where did that come from and where is it going? Or like the whole “lather rinse and repeat” instructions on shampoo bottles – Why? What’s the superstition behind that or is there one? Or was it just a maketing decision to sell more shampoo? I expect it was the latter, but you get my drift.

Any ideas on this? What do YOU do that makes no sense whatsoever on a daily or consistant basis?

44 Responses to “Superstitions”

  1. Jolly Bloger says:

    There is definitely a noticeable difference in the second lather. Whether or not this leads to cleaner hair is unknown.

    My family has an odd tradition I have never seen anywhere else. A person of honor (usually at a birthday) must begin the first cut into their cake, but under no circumstance may they cut to the bottom. Someone else has to take the knife halfway through the first cut. I hesitate to call it a superstition, because none of us believes it has any real significance, it is just a ritualized practice (a pseudo-stition?)

  2. Bill says:

    The “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” surely came from the automobile manufacturing industries collective legal departments. Avoidance of liablility claims seems much more plausible to me than superstition in this case.

  3. Sky says:

    I like it when people click on their mouses harder (and multiple times) when a program is slow to respond, as if it cares how hard you click. Not sure if its a superstition, but I would think that most people know better.

  4. andyinsdca says:

    I don’t listen to Led Zeppelin in a car that I’m driving. Led Zep was playing in the car when I had my 3 accidents. No Led Zep = no accidents = happy andy

  5. TurboFool says:

    People pressing the elevator or crosswalk button multiple times as though it will make it respond sooner or faster comes to mind.

    Another very modern one is when seemingly otherwise intelligent and logical people will forward on superstitious email forwards. They’ll receive some sort of barely-interesting story, lesson, poem, etc. that purports to either bring you luck or not bring you bad luck if you forward it on, and people go ahead and forward it on. It takes time out of their lives, the content wasn’t particularly interesting, and they’ll frequently APOLOGIZE and then defend their action by presenting it as a sort of “just in case” measure. That’s got to be one.

    The other tricky, catchy thing is that a great deal of these cross over with OCD to some degree or another. I’d be curious to see just how much these two matters cross.

  6. Brandon says:

    I want to think that the “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” thing is because there’s a good few feet between the driver and the mirrors (particularly the right mirror) that could cause the apparent distance to be farther.

  7. karatex says:

    I don’t know if this counts as a superstition or not, but working in my line of business (IT), I know a lot of people seem to honestly believe that their computers are sentient beings.

    Also, there are some other common things I have heard which aren’t true (the thing about chewing gum staying in your digestive system for 7 years, or the thing about swimming within a half hour of eating, or the thing about how every time a room full of people gets quiet if you look at a clock the time will be n:20 where n=any number 0-23)

  8. Chris Baker says:

    I’ve been trying to eliminate the “… Bless You” when someone sneezes, but the silence after the nasal purge niggles and pokes at me until I can’t stand it and it slips out, very quietly, mumbled under my breath, “bless you.” I feel a little better that I have managed to chop off the traditional “god” at the beginning of the entreaty, but then you are left to wonder just who you are expecting to deliver the blessing, whatever that is. My best tactic is to pretend that I just haven’t heard the sneeze, but when it is expelled right into your face, it’s pretty hard to ignore. The worst is rapid fire sneezes – five, six in a row. Do you “bless you” after each sneeze? or wait patiently for what appears to be the final convulsion? Next worst is the almost-but-not-quite-yet sneeze, leaving you hanging wondering if it will look bad if you take off running. I would love to have a pithy phrase to plug up the after-sneeze silence. Any suggestions? Bless you.

  9. Brian says:

    At this point in my life, not only do I not say “Bless you” when people sneeze, it actually annoys me when people say it to me. I mean, I sneezed: big deal! I sneeze every day; is it really necessary to draw attention to it? Just ignore it and move on!

    (Though if you feel you must acknowledge it, I find “Gesundheit” slightly preferable to “Bless you”. The word just means “health” and avoids any question of belief in spirits.)

  10. I’m convinced that my hometown NHL team has started their season so poorly because their schedule has not meshed well with mine – I haven’t been able to dress appropriately in order to facilitate wins for them. In other words, I’m certain they’re losing because the lucky jersey is in the closet, and the lucky socks just can’t carry the workload. It doesn’t help that I opted not to pay for the Center Ice package, so I can’t watch and yell at them to do something differently. They can hear that, you know.

    Also, February is notorious in my life for bad things happening to me or people I love. As unreasonable as I know it is, I tend to hunker down in February, never take trips and avoid big decisions or life changes. I just can’t seem to get my brain past the whole correlation/causation conundrum…

  11. Jon the myrmidon says:

    The messages “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” and “lather rinse and repeat” are magical incantations that, when placed on their respective products, protect the manufacturers from the bad juju of legal liability. In fact, most warning labels are the result of man’s unyielding quest to not get sued so often. The fun question is regarding warning labels is whether a particular warning label is the result of a legal suit or merely an attempt at reducing the risk of a suit.
    The most famous example, I would think, has to be Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, aka the Mcdonalds coffee case, which led to the coffee cup warning label “contents may be hot”.

  12. Matthew Francis says:

    Jolly Bloger, in my experience, that tradition you mention about cutting the cake and not touching the bottom is quite common here in Australia. I’ve seen several different families do it. The idea is to make a wish as you make the cut, but it won’t come true if you touch the bottom. I’ve always thought it was ridiculous, of course. :)

  13. Philip says:

    One very irritating thing I’ve noticed since starting my new job a month ago is the number of people that knock on wood. I can’t go an entire day without at least one person knocking on wood. Granted it’s not as bad as my last job where I was repulsed with the constant inundation of strange berries juice, wheat grass, “The Secret”, acupuncture, and many other pseudo sciences. All-in-all I’m in a better place now, and I don’t mean I’m dead.

  14. Karatex says:

    Jon @ 11:

    You should be a bit more skeptical about what you think you know about the McDonald’s coffee case. McDonald’s was serving coffee at levels significantly hotter than necessary — 180-190 degrees F… levels which cause 3rd degree burns within seconds. By comparison, the coffee you make in your home would be about 140 degrees F. McDonald’s claimed the reason they served their coffee significantly hotter than normal (or even, significantly hotter than other fast-food restaurants) was because customers would take the coffee with them long distances. However, it was shown through research conducted by McDonald’s that a large percentage of their customers expected to drink their coffee immediately after purchase.

    The woman in this case suffered severe third degree burns requiring skin grafts over 6% of her body. I think most of us have spilled coffee on us at one point or another, but I doubt any of us needed skin grafts, and there’s a reason for that. Liebeck attempted to settle with McDonald’s for the cost of her medical expenses, but McDonald’s refused and insisted on going to trial, where they were found at fault by a jury, which imposed punitive damages of $2.7 million (2 days’ worth of McDonald’s coffee sales). The case was later privately resettled between McDonald’s and Liebeck.

  15. ejdalise says:

    Work. Going to work. Makes no sense to me whatsoever. Oh sure, I know the monetary benefits are nice. But as skeptic, knowing we likely only have one life (

  16. ejdalise says:

    Crap! I accidentally submitted the post before finishing it.

    Anyway, knowing we have only one life, and choosing to waste over a third of it on work . . . crazy.

    Aside from that, we will not own a red (or off-red) car any more. Both red cars we owned were hit; one by a person running a red light, and the other by a person passing in an intersection on a two lane road. While I don’t care much either way, my wife would rather not own one.

  17. Lee Cooper says:

    To: Chris Baker
    *I’ve been trying to eliminate the “… Bless you” when someone sneezes…

    Try the Seinfeld method, “If you want to make a person feel better after they sneeze, you shouldn’t say ‘God bless you.’ You should say ‘You’re so good looking!'”
    – Jerry, in “The Good Samaritan”

    Also, my wife and I say, “You made it! (exclamation optional)” I guess it’s our way of thumbing one’s nose at convention and superstition.

    Come to think of it, a study of people’s pathological need to ward off negative events at all times, with a well placed “bless you” or “God rest his soul”, could be very interesting. My Grandmothers and Aunts delight in recounting gossip concerning the misfortune of others, but they always follow with a quick “Spectacles – testicles – wallet – and watch” torso crossing. After all, who would be foolish enough to tempt the Fates?

  18. Trimegistus says:

    How about the widespread belief that sacrificing tax dollars will magically summon prosperity?

  19. Aaron W. Johnson says:

    Our family has a superstition that has to do with knives. If one of us cuts ourselves, the knife must immediately be discarded because, in the words of my grandfather, “once they taste blood, they want more.” I am the only one in my family to thumb my nose at this superstition, and I have yet to observe that my pocketknife is thirsty.

  20. Rob A says:

    Are we so wary of racism that we fail to mention skin colour when describing someone even though it’s obviously a very important part of what they look like?

    Smoking was shown as a highly significant cause of lung cancer and now it seems that we are convinced that other things (food, behaviour) will also prove to be equally significant (e.g. red wine, cure or curse?).

  21. LovleAnjel says:

    I have a general sports ‘superstition’ about watching games on TV. It started with my mom, who used to watch the Cubs play every day on the kitchen TV. The Cubs only seemed to win on the few occaisions when she missed a game (insert Cubs track record joke here). Now whenever my husband’s teams lose I say, “Well that’s because we watched the game! We should have gone shopping instead.” I still dislike watching sports on TV, and I used to say I just didn’t find it as exciting as being there, but come to think of it maybe I actually hold that superstition on a deeper level.

    That’s kind of messed up, now that I think about it.

  22. Daniel says:

    about the shampoo thing, I do actually think that there is a reason. It might of course be that I just tried to rationalise a myth propagated my shampoo companies but I ve think that it has something to mith micellular concentration and the detergent in the shampoo. Too mch shampoo at once will not really help you get a cleaner hair and washh away more dirt. But if you repeat twice or 3 times with a smaller amount of shampoo then you you actually wash away more dirt. You realise that when at the second time the shampoo makes more soap-bubbles. It could of course be that a bigger amount of shampoo once has the same effect but I do think from personal experience that it makes sense. Does anyone agree?

  23. Drew says:

    Pushing crosswalk buttons repeatedly and that sort of thing are good examples. I might define a superstition as “Any behavior which, while not effecting any relevant change, confers the illusion of control and is reinforced by confirmation bias.”

    Regarding saying “Bless you,” after sneezes, I think it’s one of the few remaining social conventions that actually gets people to interact with strangers, so I’m kinda a fan. I don’t think anyone thinks it does anything anymore, so I don’t think it qualifies as a superstition. Plus, go ahead and leave in the religious connotations: since no one believes it works, it makes a nice example of how religious ritual in general is really just convention.

  24. Baal of Confusion says:

    My wife and I say “curse you” to each other after a sneeze. I’ve occasionally said it to my friends, with mixed results, but usually it provokes some kind of amusement, and occasionally triggers thought about the superstition itself.

  25. Jim Shaver says:

    Drew: I don’t think the practice of pushing crosswalk buttons multiple times usually qualifies as superstitious behavior. I think it’s mostly due to traffic light system designs that are generally unfriendly to pedestrians. In all the crosswalk buttons I’ve seen, there’s no immediate feedback to the pedestrian to indicate that his request has been acknowledged by the system. Therefore, it makes perfect sense, once you’ve expended the time and energy to reach for and press the button, to press it several times just to increase the odds that the system might know of your existence and desire.

    Also, the “bless you” response to a sneeze is, I think, nothing more than a common courtesy. That’s certainly the case when I do it. It’s like saying, “Hey, we all sneeze sometimes, don’t be embarrassed by it.” That said, I’ll have to give “curse you” a try, in the right setting, of course.

  26. Wendy says:

    For me, it’s wishing. I always wish on stars, or on birthday candles, and I always wish at 11:11. Also, I ever-so-rarely knock on wood. Even though I’m a full-blown skeptic and I know that my wishes NEVER come true, and I’m utterly WASTING MY TIME, I still do it. I guess it’s more of a security blanket type situation! You don’t expect it to do anything, it’s just nice to have…

  27. Dave says:

    “. In all the crosswalk buttons I’ve seen, there’s no immediate feedback to the pedestrian to indicate that his request has been acknowledged by the system.”

    Where I am in Canada there is a little light that lets you know when it has been successfully pushed and people still push it multiple times.

    I called someone on pushing the elevator button multiple times once. I said that it doesn’t go faster, and she retorted that it did.

    Clearly elevators are built to specifications and will not speed up dangerously, or be slow to start just to make you wait longer.

    How about our need never be wrong. To always defend whatever we say…I say dumb things all the time and if someone calls me on it I freely admit now when I’m wrong. And I don’t feel bad about it.

    Democracy as a way of determining correctness and falsehoods could be thrown in here. The idea that there are no facts and everything is an opinion and whoever has the most people on their side in an argument wins. This is something that most people don’t think about and I think it is hard wired into us. Safety in numbers.

  28. Carolyn says:

    My sister kisses her fingers and then touches the roof of the car while sailing through yellow lights. It apparently wards off traffic cops.

  29. John says:

    As a bicycle commuter (and everything elser, sold the car…) I don’t feel comfortable at all talking about fl*t t*res. Especially the infrequency thereof. I know it’s completely irrational, but there it is! Try swapping tubes in the 40 degree rain on the side of a busy road in the dark on your way to work, you’d feel a little irrational too! It is perilous to belittle the p*nct*re fairy…

  30. Shahar Lubin says:

    When speaking on video phone with a headset(Skypeing) I still find myself getting close to the screen every time I can’t hear too well.

  31. Max says:

    In most cases, the elevator’s “close door” button doesn’t even work. It just gives the illusion of control, which is what many superstitions are all about. And the ceiling hatch doesn’t open from the inside, because the elevator gods said you’re safer inside the coffin, I mean cabin, than outside.

    I got a superstition for you. Some so-called atheists, who are still bitter about their Christian upbringing, can’t say God/Jesus without corrupting the word, as in Gawd/Jeebus. Geez, that’s pretty gosh-darn ironic.

  32. Mike says:

    In Medieval times when you sneezed you could expel your soul from your body so in the few seconds? it took to scrabble back into you and to prevent any passing demon from nabbing it, other people would say ‘Bless you’ to protect it.

    Enchanting isn’t it?. Obviously this centuries old custom fails to die out which makes you wonder if other of our superstitions may go back thousands of years? The Romans were dead keen on salt and often paid in it(hence our term salary) – could they be responsible for the custom of throwing salt over your shoulder if you spilt any?

  33. Bronwyn says:

    The current (very commercial and sold in supermarkets) shampoo that I use does not have any lather, rinse, repeat instruction on it. In fact it doesn’t have any instructions at all.

    The “Objects Appear Closer” message is because some idiots don’t bother to check what is actually behind them before pulling out into a vehicle that was very close.

    So you have a marketing ploy and a safety message. How is that superstition?…

  34. Jim says:

    I remember being at my grandparents house once when I was very little (at the time accepting anything my mother told me about Christianity and hence being a theist) and sneezing, with of course the natural response of “God bless you.” And I remember wondering for the first time why we said this, even as a good little Christian it didn’t make sense to me. I asked and was told that it was “to keep the demons out” and I’ve remembered that ever sense. I now know its origins thanks to Mike.

  35. Jim says:

    Since* hehe sorry

  36. Max says:

    What about the modern equivalent of the chain letters, email and all there related ilk.

    when i have confronted people about it, they say “i know it’s not real but why take a chance?”

  37. ddr says:

    Wonko’s Apprentice: My time of the year to hunker down and be careful is the time span between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Any time I’ve been shot, shot at, stabbed, had my eyes gouged, had my car rammed or had people commit suicide in front of me has been in that time period. Of course, all that stuff happens less often since I retired from the police department. But still, my caution remains.

    The superstition that bugs me the most? Not mentioning something because you will jinx it. Mostly this is a sports thing. Like if a pitcher has a no hitter going in baseball and the announcer brings it up, people get all upset because he may have jinxed the no hitter. Or watching a football game and the announcer says that the quarterback has not thrown any interceptions or been sacked. Like speaking some words is going to change the fabric of reality.

  38. Kerry Held says:

    I have one thing I wanted to say here. It’s that mentioning a bad event will make it come true. I have a guy I carpool with to work. We work as Police Officers and have both been doing it for many years. We like things as quiet as possible (most cops do). We work in a small town and don’t get that many calls during a shift.If I say something like ” we had 3 car accidents and a DWI yesterday, I hope we don’t get that today” he always cuts me off before I even finish and says ” don’t even mention it”. “I’m just saying I hope we don’t get it……”. ” please stop, don’t say anything”. Actually it’s weird but almost everyone there seems to do this same thing. Next time I’m going to make a big point about saying “car accidents, burglaries, DWI’s , and bank robberies” as much as I can and tell them to take notice of what happens. I guess according to them we should have a crime wave. By the way this only works with bad things.
    I have a question too. As an Atheist what can I say instead of “God forbid” ? Example “If Aunt Tina dies, God forbid, she we leave her estate to her daughter Jen”. It’s kind of hard to stick ” I really really really hope it doesn’t happen” in there.

  39. my VMgolf was named fred says:

    what about the anthropomorphizing of the complicated machines we use every day, does that count? you know like when somebody names their car and speaks about its mood when its not running well

  40. my VMgolf was named fred says:

    oh and, sorry i totally forgot i wanted to mention this. To the people trying to figure out how to side step the little religious stuff, god bless you and all. Dont worry about it. Until its getting in your way who cares what gibberish is the polite response to this or that. “God Bless you”, “god forbid”, whatever i have no plans of changing “god dam” or “jesus fucking christ” so whats the diff.

  41. [...] one by another skeptic, however, features quite a lot of confusion on his part as to what superstition actually means – Mark Edward writes: ‘I would like to hear about and investigate those unsubstantiated [...]

  42. Tina Marshall says:

    I found a great post about superstitions on Peterman’s Eye today that I think you’ll enjoy!


  43. jaramilr says:

    I’m glad to see I’m not alone in being bothered by strangers publicly blessing me after a sneeze.

    I stopped saying anything after sneezes but my wife insists that I at least say Gesundheit. She’s not religious, she just thinks it’s good manners. She isn’t very sympathetic to my arguments against so I’ll try them out on you instead :)

    First of all, we tend not to say anything to strangers after other involuntary bodily noises (or smells), so why sneezes?

    Second, with the religious part, I usually think to myself “bless me? Why me? I’m doing alright. Why not bless someone who needs it (or who believes in that kind of thing). What makes you think I, a total stranger, need a blessing right now?”.

    Third, it usually seems like people rush to say “bless you” not because they really are concerned about my well being but because they are afraid something bad (socially, metaphysically?) will happen if they don’t. Seems a little creepy.

    Fourth, even without the religious part, saying something after a sneeze is a little intrusive, especially when the blesser goes back to ignoring the blessee immediately after. If you’re going to disrupt someone’s train of thought at least have something interesting to say. Chances are the person you interrupt was thinking hard about a very long and detailed rant about the evils of saying “bless you” after a sneeze which you have just forcibly ended.

  44. Sherman Gibbs says:

    It annoys me when someone says “Bless you” when I sneeze. Wonder why it isnt done when one passes gas?