On of my favorite anecdotes (probably apocryphal, as these things usually go) tells of a horseshoe that hung on the wall over Niels Bohr’s desk. One day, an exasperated visitor could not help asking, “Professor Bohr, you are one of the world’s greatest scientists. Surely you cannot believe that object will bring you good luck.” “Of course not,” Bohr replied, “but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe or not.”

I’ve had two occasions with which to be obsessively superstitious this weekend. The first was Saturday night’s depressing Flyers game. Due to poorly planned family outing (thanks a lot Mike!), I missed the first period and a half of the game. During that time, the Flyers went down 2-0. As soon as I started watching, they scored a goal, much to my relief. But as the game grinded to a less than satisfactory close, I could not help but think, what if I had been watching for that first period?

Even as I thought that, though, I recognized how absurd and arrogant a thought like that is. As a fan, I obviously cannot participate in the game, but all fans like to believe they are a factor in the outcome of the game and will thus go to extreme superstitious lengths to ensure the team wins. That way, there is some sort of personal pride to be gained (or lost, in my case) from the team winning, even though there really isn’t.

I spent the day today at the Belmont Racetrack, betting on the ponies. Longtime readers know that I have a soft spot for gambling, but that I don’t do it very often nor do I ever really play for high stakes. One of the things I really enjoy is people watching, because some people go to amusing lengths to perform superstitious acts that will bring them that mystical win.

One of my friends informed me of his superstitious strategy today. His entire betting strategy dealt with the name of the horse. If the horse’s name began with an “S” (i.e. Secretariat, Seabiscuit, etc…) it was bound to be good. He also made an impromptu decision that names which displayed alliteration (i.e. Seattle Slew, Barton Bank, etc…) were also more likely to win. So today, when he spied “Seaside Salute” in the program, which exhibited both alliteration and the letter “S”, he decided it was a shoe-in! Of course, he only bet it to win, and it placed, thus he got screwed out of a modest amount of money.

John R. Velazquez, aboard Maddalena, rides to win the first race at Churchill DownsLike I should talk. My entire betting strategy revolves around John R. Velazquez, the best jockey in the history of horse racing. This superstition did not begin with me, as several friends discovered this guy a few years ago, but it has been passed on and I cannot help but believe in the power of JRV. When I bet on him, I tend to win. When I bet against him, he tends to be riding the horse that screws me over. As a result, I need to seriously consider the consequences of crossing JRV whenever I choose to bet on someone else.

Now, if I were to collect historical data regarding my bets for or against JRV (which is admittedly a very small data set, and thus not terribly conclusive either way, but stay with me here) I wouldn’t be surprised to find that my beliefs are unwarranted. But that is the way of the superstition – no amount of logic or evidence is strong enough to be seriously considered (while any supporting evidence is, of course, trumpeted with glee).

Now, I don’t believe for a second that watching the Flyers makes them play better, nor do I believe that betting on (or against) John R. Velazquez will increase (or decrease) my chances of winning. But I still think those things… after all, what could I lose?

This could be a manifestation of a few different things. It could be a relatively benign “security belief” (or “pleasing falsehood” as some like to call it – I’m sure there are tons of names for it) which, as long as you realize what you’re dealing with can actually be fun (as my obsession with JRV is). It could also be brought on by what Steven Den Beste calls the High cliff syndrome.

It seems that our brains are constantly formulating alternatives, and then rejecting most of them at the last instant. … All of us have had the experience of thinking something which almost immediately horrified us, “Why would I think such a thing?” I call it “High cliff syndrome”.

At a viewpoint in eastern Oregon on the Crooked River, looking over a low stone fence into a deep canyon with sheer walls, a little voice inside me whispered, “Jump!” AAAGH! I became nervous, and my palms started sweating, and I decided I was no longer having fun and got back into my car and continued on my way.

It seems to be one of the profound truths of human existence that we can conceive of impossible situations that we know will never be possible. None of us are immune, from one of the great scientific minds of our time to the lowliest casino hound. This essay was, in fact, inspired by an Isaac Asimov essay called “Knock Plastic!” (as published in Magic) in which Asimov confesses his habitual knocking of wood (of course, he became a little worried over the fact that natural wood was being used less and less in ordinary construction… until, of course, someone introduced him to the joys of knocking on plastic). The insights driven by such superstitious “security beliefs” must indeed be kept into perspective, but that includes realizing that we all think these things and that sometimes, it really can’t hurt to indulge in a superstition.

Update: More on Security Beliefs here.

2 thoughts on “Superstition”

  1. =D

    I’m like Asimov. I’ve always knocked on wood — me, the big skeptic, the atheist. I don’t think the action alters anything external to myself; it just makes me feel better. Yeah, and I don’t like knocking on artificial wood either.

    And really, I think superstitions can be considered beneficial in that type of situation if it makes you feel more secure and doesn’t harm anyone else. Same idea with prayer that scientists have been talking about.

  2. I knock on wood, too…despite my total scepticism about things superstitious. I don’t even know why I do it…I guess it makes me feel better too.

    That’s weird.

    Stop making me think!!!

    j/k, of course.

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