If you go out on Halloween night will you avoid black cats? Stay away from streets with the number 13 in them? Avoid walking on a crack for fear you’ll break your mother’s back? Yesterday, in the course of looking for an update on Storming Sandy on the Weather Channel, we landed on CBS “Sunday Morning” in the middle of a report on superstition.
It turns out that we Americans who call ourselves a scientific-minded lot are very superstitious. Here’s what we learned: “A new CBS News poll for ‘Sunday Morning’ finds more than half of all Americans (fifty-one percent) knock on wood to avoid bad luck; sixteen percent won’t open umbrellas indoors; thirteen percent carry a good luck charm; and one in ten (ten percent) avoids black cats.” Worse, only forty percent believe in evolution.
Are those of us who say we’re not superstitious telling the truth? Yes and no. Most of us born in the U.S. would recognize many of the common superstitions on the list created on csicop.org. These may vary from culture to culture, but whatever the culture, you can bet that everyone is exposed to superstitions growing up. My mother used to say we needed to throw salt over our shoulders to prevent something bad from happening, (I can’t remember what), that if you dropped a utensil someone was coming, and if your nose itched it meant you were going to get money. She also warned me against breaking any mirrors. It’s not just our families who passed down superstitions. Some elevators move from the twelfth to the fourteenth floor and avoid naming the thirteenth all together. Baseball players are notorious for following routines after they note what they were wearing when they had a successful day at the plate, in the field or on the pitcher’s mound. I remember an infielder on our local team, who always jumped over second base and did a little dance when he ran on the field, and an outfielder who tweaked his right sleeve as part of his preparation in the batter’s box.
As a kid, I remember searching through the grass for four-leaf clovers and sometimes when I see a clover crop in our yard in the summer, I still sort through the leaves. We always wish on the wishbone at Thanksgiving. Still, I don’t feel superstitious, because I don’t believe any of these things will actually change the course of my day, my week or my life. They’re just sayings I grew up with and remember fondly.
But why do some people behave as if superstitions held truths for them? Some experts see knocking on wood, blowing out the candles on a birthday cake in one breath after making a wish, and carrying amulets around as efforts to exercise control over parts of our lives over which we have no control.
As far as how particular superstitions evolved, no one seems to have clear answers to that. However, I think you’re safe to ignore all but one. “Don’t step under a ladder” seems like a sensible rule to follow regardless of your views about superstitions. Now if I can just get the city to change my street number to 12.5, I’ll sleep better at night.