Does Friday the 13th mean more than a movie to you? Are you continually sweeping up salt tossed over your shoulder? Will you be on the lookout for black cats next Halloween? Do broken mirrors send shivers down your spine? Yes, you cry, clutching your rabbit's foot.
Perhaps you're of a different animal. Or so you think. Superstitious? Not me, you claim, quickly rubbing a rabbit's foot. That sort of thing is silly, you insist, stepping in a puddle of mud to dodge a black cat, crossing your fingers for good measure.
Still say you're not superstitious? Take the ultimate test. Find a ladder. Walk under it. Take an old mirror. Crack it. I dare you.
The truth is, most of us are at least somewhat superstitious. We're a lot like my friend Sue, usually a down-to-earth type. "I don't consider myself to be superstitious," she says, "but if I spill some salt, I'll throw a little over my shoulder. Just to be on the safe side."
It's no wonder that superstition, practices or beliefs based on the feeling that chance, magic or the unknown can alter events for better or worse, effect just about everyone. It's been estimated that there are more than 80,000 superstitions, many of which are rooted in pagan rules and rituals.
Most of us have heard of the more conventional superstitions: avoiding black cats and sidewalk cracks, picking four-leaf clovers and wishing on stars, knocking on wood and carrying brides over thresholds.
Some superstitions are more obscure: Pointing is not just rude; it portends ill will. A fallen picture is an omen of death to follow. Carrying a spade through the house tempts illness to follow. More cheerily, there's a wish in the rhyme: "See a pin, pick it up/All the day, you'll have good luck."
Where did this stuff come from? Ignorance and fear, always an ill-omened pair.
At the beginning of time, man didn't know what was happening in the world around him. The world was a vast and frightening place. Ancient people didn't know why the heavens roared with thunder or the sky flashed lightning. They didn't understand why there were fire and rain, earthquakes and volcanoes. They didn't know how mirrors worked, why seasons changed or why some people fell sick and were cured while others died. So they explained these phenomena with what today is called superstition.
Back then, it was revered as the laws of magic, and the people's explanations for these strange and mysterious happenings became centered around the spirit world. Ancient people believed strongly in the supernatural -- in witchcraft and spirits, gods and goddesses. Good and evil were personified. Forces greater than man were thought to rule the earth and sky, and the people feared them. In order to placate these forces, to win their favor or soothe their wrath, mankind created and practiced the rites of superstition.
What with the scientific advances and technological breakthroughs of today, superstitions should have been exposed as empty and useless, and disappeared. But they haven't. Could it be that some people still believe in the age-old tales of superstition?
"Absolutely," says Dr. Phillip Shaver, professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. "There are people who believe the soul leaves the body and is seen in mirrors, that people communicate by ESP, that to walk under a ladder will bring them bad luck and that there are flying saucers.
"People are poorly trained to think rationally, which is a failure of the American public-education system," Shaver explains. "If a superstition seems plausible and you were not taught to think scientifically and analytically -- to ask where is the evidence that a mirror reflection is the soul -- then you believe it."
Probably the first experiment with superstition was conducted by psychologist B.F. Skinner. Demonstrating his Theory of Reinforcement -- when something repeatedly happens to a person, he or she associates an object or practice with that occurrence -- Skinner waited for a pigeon's desired response and then gave the bird some seed.
But what would happen if food was provided regularly regardless of the pigeon's actions? Ever curious, the psychologist gave the bird a grain of seed every 15 seconds. The pigeon didn't have to lift a feather to get the seed, but after a while, it started behaving oddly -- turning in counterclockwise circles. Other pigeons, also given food freely, acquired unnecessary habits as well. The birds behaved as if their actions made the food appear. They became superstitious. Skinner concluded that superstitious behavior is the product of coincidental reward.
Is this to say that superstitious people are a bunch of bird brains? Well . . . yes and no. Some psychologists say there is more to the story.
"In all animals, from pigeons on up to people, it is a property of the nervous system to remember such co-occurrences," Shaver explains. "The nervous system associates the actions -- even if they were random actions -- that resulted in reward and remembers them."
There's still another twist to this tale. Suppose you are so fortunate as to receive a lucky horseshoe and then something good happens to you shortly afterward -- you find a $20 bill on the street or score well on a test. It's likely, others would point to the horseshoe, heralding its special power. But if nothing extraordinary happened to you after receiving the horseshoe, chances are, no one would point to its failure.
"Society is prejudiced in favor of superstition," Shaver says. "Neither pigeons nor people pay attention to how many times they are rewarded when they take a different action, when they don't practice the superstition.
"Just as often, people don't blame the procedure if a superstition doesn't work. They tell themselves, 'I must have done something wrong' or 'That black cat I saw on the way to the test jinxed me.' Our society encourages us to retain the belief in the face of evidence to disprove it."
Quite possibly, however, superstition still exists because we want -- no, need -- it to.
According to Eric Maple, author of "Superstition and the Superstitious": "Without exception all of us have been conscious at some period in our lives of an uncanny sense of insecurity. The world around us becomes threatening, certainties dissolve into uncertainties. Suddenly we become afraid. This is not necessarily an irrational attitude. It is often our moment of truth."
Just as our ancestors did centuries ago, we turn, then, to the world of spirits and magic, hoping to counter the blows of fate or bring good fortune to our lives. We practice the rules and rituals of superstition.
Such practices are becoming more mainstream. "Today, more and more people are openly turning to magic," Maple reports. "The field is clear for an open avowal of superstitious beliefs."
The '80s saw the dawn of a New Age, giving us crystal power, channeling and Shirley MacLaine. Carrying a rabbit's foot in the pocket of your Armani or knocking the wood paneling of your computer cabinet doesn't seem so far flung.
Superstition can make our lives easier and ourselves more comfortable. As Americans, we're all for that. We're often looking for a quick fix, an easy way out, an edge over the competition. After all, it's easier to wear the lucky tie, the paisley one with the blue, than it is to sit down and prepare for the Peterson presentation.
Psychologists report that superstition is a primitive way of coping with life, that it's a defense against stress and anxiety.
"The average person feels not quite secure," Shaver says. "He doesn't trust his own capabilities. He isn't sure he has it all under control, so he looks to superstition to impose some order and gain some control over the events and experiences in his life. How superstitious a person becomes is proportionate to the amount of control he feels he has."
On football teams, the defense is often more superstitious than the offense. Psychologists speculate that this is because the defense, not having the ball, has less control.
This holds true in life, too. (Didn't someone once say football is a microcosm of life? But that's another story.) When we're not carrying the ball -- in charge of who gets that Peterson account or whether our one true love falls in love with us, too -- we're more apt to rely on ritual to help us through, without stumbling over the threshold.
Says Shaver: "It's not surprising that some people are awfully nervous. We have a lot of good reasons for feeling that if we are not successful all the time, it's going to be very painful for us.
"Our society makes people vulnerable," Shaver explains. "We have the most extreme degrees of individualism and competitiveness in our culture. The messages are: 'Sell the most Widgets or you're fired' and 'Make those free throws or you're off the team.'
"Coupled with this competitive pressure is less group support. Less support from family and colleagues. Less support from society. Society says, 'If he doesn't make those free throws, trade the bum!' That 'bum' could be a generally competent player who had some bad days, but he's labeled a loser. Society doesn't cut anyone any slack."
It's for these reasons that athletes are notorious for being superstitious. Amateur and professional alike adopt superstitions to relieve the pressure, sports psychologists report. Athletes convince themselves that game results are predetermined, and that takes the fear out of the unknown and the pressure off their performance. Superstitions become both a security blanket and a secret weapon.
Sports psychologists also suggest that superstitious rituals can boost performance by focusing concentration. Practicing the superstition signals the mind and body to work together to perform in the desired way.
Athletes, however, don't always prescribe to the mundane wood-knocking and black cat-avoiding that the rest of us do. They make up their own:
Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly throws up before each game. No, he's not nervous; he does it on purpose. For luck. "I don't eat a pregame meal. I rent it," Kelly says. Kelly also uses only black laces in his rib protector and will only lace it top to bottom.
Former teammate Joe Devlin is superstitious about alterations to his equip-ment. One day, the offensive tackle discovered that the Bills equipment manager had cleaned his helmet. Fearing ill luck sure to follow, Devlin ran outside to bang his helmet against a curb to restore its scrapes and scars.
Football players don't have a monopoly on superstitious behavior. Hockey's Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings tucks the right side of his jersey behind his hip pad. It's not for comfort; it's pure superstition. Former goalie Ken Dryden refused to watch the referee make his pregame check of the goal judges' red lights; he considered it unlucky to see the red light before a game. (Perchance a sign of things to come?)
Golfer Jack Nicklaus has said he didn't "feel secure" unless he started a round of golf with three pennies in his pocket.
Even coaches aren't immune. Buffalo Sabres coach Rick Dudley sports a beard because he always has a winning season when he skips the shave.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to look for pins on his daily walk about campus. Mysteriously, whenever he found one, he would stick it in a tree. Whether he was warding off evil or wooing good fortune is unknown.
Baseball players have the greatest reputation for being superstitious: Don't wash your uniform during a winning streak, don't cross bats, never mention a no-hitter in the dugout, step over the baseline not on it. These superstitions live on from team to team, from generation to generation, becoming as much a part of the game as runs, hits and errors.
The funny thing about all this is that while superstitions don't truly have any magical, mystical power, they can work for us. That is, we can make them work.
If you believe a certain ritual can help you reach a goal, it may influence you in ways that will help you achieve your aim. Carrying a lucky charm, for example, may make you more optimistic and could result in a more positive mental approach. You become more confident, sure of your capability and a happy ending. Psychologists say there is plenty of evidence to indicate that if we believe in positive outcomes, we get positive outcomes.
Unfortunately, superstitions can also work against us (grab those four-leaf clovers). "I would never advocate superstitious behavior," Shaver states. "It's irrational, and there are costs to being irrational. Superstition is a false crutch that will usually trip you up somewhere down the line."
When we're superstitious, it becomes too easy to blame the superstition and not our behavior for a failure. Lose a tennis match -- or a lover -- and you lay the blame at superstition's feet, not your own. You fail to recognize that lack of court time -- or courting -- was the real reason the match failed. Next time around, you again won't give the time and attention needed for success.
What's worse, if you're not careful, you can become dependent on superstitious practices and lose common sense.
How to know if you're too superstitious about superstition? Ask yourself: Do I have to practice my superstition in order to feel competent? Do I feel anxious or uneasy when I don't indulge in certain rituals? Am I more superstitious than not, engaging in superstitious behavior almost daily?
"When superstition gets in the way -- when it gets in the way of work, interpersonal relationships, your sense of well-being -- that's when it has become a problem," Shaver says.
When that happens, it's a good idea to talk over the problem with a trusted friend, your spouse, or perhaps a professional therapist.
Chances are, however, superstition is merely an extracurricular activity in your life, something you have a little fun with, something you keep in perspective. So don't worry. Just keep a rabbit's foot in your pocket, a horseshoe at your door, and you'll be just fine (knock on wood).