“I’m not watching,” my husband announced at the start of Game Five.
I twisted on the sofa to stare at him. Andrew has been a staunch, unabashed Nationals fan since 2005, and the last time Washington won the World Series was as the Senators in 1924.
“Every time I watch, they don’t get runs,” he grumbled. “The minute I stop watching, they score. Then, when I watched the entire game, it was the first one they lost.”
“Isn’t that a bit grandiose, darling? I mean, this is a lot bigger than you.”
He just shrugged.
“Are you going to check on the score periodically?”
“Won’t that skew the results anyway?” By now, I was humoring him.
“No,” he said firmly. Then he hesitated. “I don’t think so.” He glared at me. “Look, I know it’s not rational.”
What interested me was just how irrational it was—and how common. We live in an age of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotic surgery, gene editing … and we still knock on wood. The other day, I made a hopeful statement and someone knocked wood for me. CBS News took a poll in 2012, and a full 51 percent of respondents admitted to knocking on the stuff regularly. Hotels still skip the thirteenth floor. No researcher has been able to document a full-moon effect, yet cops and emergency-room staffers still swear it exists. A 2013 Harris poll found that 42 percent of respondents believed in ghosts or spirits of the dead.
Like the ghosts it conjures, magical thinking refuses to die. We perform odd and sometimes elaborate rites we believe will help us succeed; we avoid utterly harmless acts because we have dreamed up some bizarre and spurious notion of causality that connects our behavior to an outcome that is entirely out of our control.
Merriam-Webster defined superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” A 1956 essay by psychiatrist Judd Marmor added a slurve of judgment, calling superstitions “beliefs or practices groundless in themselves and inconsistent with the degree of enlightenment reached by the community to which one belongs.” In other words, this is the direct opposite of scientific thinking. This is emotion grabbing the reins and shoving logic off the horse.
My husband would never swear off watching, say, a cricket match; he is unfazed by the whispered updates on some golf tournament. Superstition requires fervent involvement. The stakes must matter personally before the irrational can be invoked.
The Nats qualified. Still, though: This is a man who insists on precision, logic, and clarity at all other times. Why the sudden burst of nonsense? Feeling sorry for my game-deprived husband, I read up on the Nats and Astros and realized he was far from alone. “Baby Shark” was illustrative. So were Alex Bregman’s “lucky” red plaid shirt and the Spiderman jumpsuit under Josh Reddick’s uniform. Easy copy while reporters waited for the denouement? Sure. But the elation was real when the Chicago Cubs yanked free of the Curse of the Billy Goat in 2016 … And when I opened Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, Stuart Vyse’s first example was Wade Boggs, a New York Yankees third baseman who ate chicken every day for at least twenty years because he thought he hit better after eating chicken. Boggs had a five-hour pre-game ritual that included drawing the Hebrew word “Chai,” which means life, in the dirt with his bat. “I don’t like surprises,” he explained.
Baseball is full of surprises. So is theater, another hotbed of superstition.
So is everyday life.
Our little vacations from logic are, Vyse notes, more than abstract beliefs. Superstitions are acts. In other words, they let us do something we can pretend will make a difference. They restore a margin of control over a terrifying unknown, easing our anxiety and fear of failure—our own or our team’s.
Because superstitions are so often quirky, folksy, and colorful (the realm of the irrational), I always assumed that they were passed down by more whimsical generations. But Vyse says this sort of thinking still comes naturally to us, because it meshes so well with the way the human brain works. Even a child who grew up alone in a forest might behave superstitiously, because human beings are so sensitive to coincidence. We tend to devise rituals to soothe our nervous impatience. We struggle with uncertainty. We crave control.
My Irish grandmother taught us never to start a project on a Friday. This became an excuse to coast on Fridays. When I was seven, I used to tell myself I would have a good day at school (a torment of mocking athleticism, enigmatically crude boys, and a gagging haze of chalk dust) if the socks I pulled out of my drawer were the fluffy ones, soft and thick, and not the thin navy nylon ones. This became an excuse to dig through my sock drawer—furtive and fast so I could not catch myself doing it—and pull out the socks I preferred.
Maybe Andrew just could not bear watching his team lose again, and he needed an excuse to back out without feeling disloyal. In any event, when the score tilted so dramatically that they had scant chance of winning, he, inexplicably, switched back to that station and watched to the bitter end.
Dreading the unknown is far, far worse than accepting what we dreaded.