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Abracadabra: Why it Reaches out and Grabs Ya

6 Sep

magic

I recently attended a silent auction and was the high bidder on a walking stick that I added to my small collection. Although I don’t really like walking all that much, I was attracted to this stick because of its unique design and because it reminded me of the sumac walking stick that Emma Thompson use in the Nanny McPhee movies. Whenever Nanny McPhee needed to conjure up some magic to teach naughty children a lesson, all she had to do was tap her stick twice on the floor. Oh, if it were only that easy!

Oklahoma State University social psychologist and Psychology Today blogger, Melissa Burkley refers to the continuing popularly of magic as the “Harry Potter Effect” after J. K. Rawling’s hero from her immensely popular series of books and movies. According to Burkley, “If there is one thing psychologists can learn from the Harry Potter phenomenon, it is that people love magic.”

Part of our attraction may stem from the fact that all of us have had experience with magical thinking. Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event takes place as a result of a second event, without any plausible connection. From ages two to seven years of age, magical thinking predominates and youngsters have considerable difficulty with logical thought.

Magic may also appeal to people who feel powerless or lacking in control over their environment and circumstances. This may be especially true for adolescents and young people who struggle with interpersonal situations. Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, and on-line and other role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, can provide an alternative magical universe where they have limitless power in contrast to their everyday life.

But do people really believe in real world magic? According to Burkley, “Recent research suggests that not only do people believe in magic, it is likely hard-wired into our brains…”. We often see this in everyday superstitions.

Just the other day my wife Diane and I were discussing the “knock on wood” superstition and also how our granddaughters play the childhood “jinx” game. Various cultures have different explanations for the “knock on wood” custom. It is one of many forms of “apotropaic magic” which is intended to “turn away” evil influences. According to one explanation at the divinecaroline.com website, the ancients druids, worshipped trees, believing that spirits lived in all wooden objects. To encourage these spirits to work on their behalf, they would knock on wood. Thus, whenever we want a good thing to continue or to prevent a bad thing from happening, we rouse these elemental spirits by knocking on the nearest piece of wood. Diane and I also recently received a clock and a bracelet, that came from Turkey as a gift, and both of them were decorated with the traditional apotropaic blue eyes, for protection.

The “knock on wood” superstition also reflects the magical belief that just talking about something good happening can cause bad luck, since it tempts fate. Athletes tend to be very superstitious in this regard. For examples in baseball, it is widely held that you can jinx a no-hitter by talking about while the game is still in process. A recent study by Jane Risen from the University of Chicago and Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich explored the magical thinking behind the belief that is bad luck to “tempt fate”. They theorized that this belief stems from two sources. First is the strong human tendency to be disproportionately attracted to negative events. They contend that, “negative events simply “pack a bigger psychological punch” than positive ones, probably because of evolutionary associations with survival.

Second research has consistently shown that thinking about an event makes it seem to us more likely to take place. Combining these two phenomena, the researchers then hypothesized that since the bad outcomes that might result from tempting fate are very negative, we automatically think more about them. Next, because we think more about them, we also conclude that they are more likely to occur, than the bad outcomes resulting from not tempting fate. Their studies clearly demonstrate that people are predisposed to expect the ironic. An example might be the careless college applicant, who ostentatiously wears a sweatshirt from the college to which he wants to be admitted, only to be rejected.

Our granddaughter’s “jinx game”, which also purportedly brings bad luck, is initiated when two people simultaneously say the same words. The rules vary on just how to resolved the jinx created, but usually it ends when one child pronounces the name of the other, who is then considered the jinxed party. The historic penalty for violating a jinx, is a “pinch or a poke” in the arm or buying the other person a drink, hence the phrase, “Pinch and a Poke! You owe me a Coke!” San Francisco psychoanalyst Jerome Oremland has described the game as a ritualized expression of preadolescent conflicts over their emerging new identities.

One of Diane’s aunts once wrote a family history of her mother’s side of the family, who were German farmers in east central Wisconsin. In this narrative there were several references to “hexes”, which were spells casted by neighbors to account for unfortunate events, such as cows going dry, bad crops, and at least one fretful baby. Historically such beliefs are common as prescientific explanations for events with unknown causes. When Diane questioned her mother about this she said, “Yes, it was true.”

Such magical thinking is still present in various forms. In a 2006 Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues conducted a study to determine if college students could be lead to believe that they possessed magical abilities. The participants were first introduced to a confederate of the experimenter, who posed as a fellow student. With half of the subjects, he acted extremely cordial and friendly. With the other half, however, he acted as obnoxiously as possible, in an attempt to evoke hostility. Then the subjects were given a voodoo doll and directed to stick pins in it, in the presence of the confederate, who was the intended “victim”. The “victim” feigned having a headache and then the participants were asked how much they believed they had actually caused the headache. As predicted, the people who had interacted with the obnoxious confederate were more much more likely to believe that they had actually caused the headache.

According to evolutionary psychologists, the human mind is especially adept at identifying patterns, since such casual links are critical for survival. Unfortunately this process is far from perfect, so we often believe that events are connected when they are not, resulting in magical thinking and superstitious behavior. It may well be that we are so receptive to magic because as Burkley asserts , “…we are hard-wired to overestimate our control over external events”.
Although I enjoy magic as entertainment, personally I’m not a superstitious person and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I stay that way.

Originally published in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune

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Lucky Ducks

20 Sep

Lately I‘ve  been thinking a lot about luck.  In these uncertain times, its tempting to think that maybe there is something you can do to  get a little edge.  My father was an usually practical man, but he  could be superstitious, especially when it came to  luck.  Growing up during the depression I don’t think he  want to take any unnecessary  chances.   He was known to carry  a  buckeye in his pocket for  luck, he refused to eat anything that that scratched the ground on New Year’s Day, and he even nailed a horseshoe  over the doorway to the  garage (pointing  upwards, of course, so  the luck wouldn’t dribble out). Despite his best efforts the only thing lucky in our family was the brand of cigarettes my mother smoked.

 I always assumed that luck was sort of randomly distributed, but it seems like it is more like other characteristics, with some people  at each extreme and most of us in the middle. Multi-millionaire Senator  Judd Gregg fromNew Hampshirecould be a poster child for  the lucky ducks.  In  2005 he cashed in a Powerball ticket worth $853,000.   To add a bit of irony,  his good luck occurred right after voting  against raising the minimum wage and  increasing subsidies  to help  poor people pay their heating bills.

Our son had a Norwegian friend who also lived  a charmed existence.  He had Aryan superiority written all over him.  Slot machines are everywhere inNorwayand this fellow couldn’t  pass one by with out playing and winning.

On the other side of the spectrum are people like  outdoors writer Patrick Mc Manus who insists  that he is so unlucky, when it comes to hunting and fishing, that his bad fortune rubs off on others. I guess there is nothing  very new about hexes,   jinxes,  and Jonahs.  They even made a movie about it.  William Macy  starred in a  2003 film entitled The Cooler, in which a  casino boss hires an  extremely unlucky man to hang around so that his  presence will break  other players good luck streaks.

Of course, the big question is  whether we make our own luck or is really just random. Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, once said, “Luck is the residue of design”.

English psychologist Richard Wiseman  from  the Universityof Hertfordshireand   author of   The Luck Factor,   has conducted a series of experiments comparing people who see themselves as lucky  and those who don’t.

In one  study he asked his subjects to follow a set path  across town to meet him at  a particular coffee shop.   Secretly he had  placed  20-pound notes along the pathway. He found that the  lucky subjects  were much more likely to notice the money and collect it along the way. Unlucky subjects were oblivious to the opportunities along the path.  When the subjects arrived at the  destination,   four people were waiting.One    was a very successful entrepreneur .  

The lucky subjects were  attracted to the rich entrepreneur and even engaged him in conversation. When  all  the subjects were   asked how the day went,  the unlucky ones said  nothing special  happened. The lucky subjects saw the day as very lucky and mentioned  finding the  money and talking to a person who might offer some business opportunities.

Not only were lucky people more  observant,  they also had their radar especially attuned to potential opportunities. Overall they were more open to the possibility  of   positive experiences.

 In another study  Wiseman asked  lucky and unlucky people to look through a newspaper to determine how many photographs it contained.  Unlucky subjects took about  two minutes to count  the photographs, but  lucky people averaged only a few seconds.  On the  second newspaper page was a  message printed in two inch letters which said  “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”   Invariably unlucky subjects overlooked  it, while the lucky subjects easily  spotted it.  Such opportunities for good luck may be  constantly staring all of us  in the face,  but  we are  too inattentive to recognize them.

Wiseman  posited   that unlucky people are generally more anxious, which supports  research that suggests  anxiety interferes with the ability to notice the unexpected.

Lucky people also engage  their environment more actively,  thereby increasing the possibility of positive outcomes. Unlucky people  are more  passive,  as if they expect a hostile reception to any overtures they might make.       

  Wiseman concluded  that people could be taught to be luckier and devised what he called LuckSchool. InLuckSchool people practice exercises that encourage them to think and behave like  lucky people.  Wiseman  found that about 80% of his graduates said that they felt luckier and more satisfied with their lives.   

The curriculum was based on four principles. First, lucky people believe that the future holds  good fortune for them. This  becomes   self-fulfilling  and helps them persevere  in difficult times. Psychologists believe that optimism is the major factor underlying luck.  

Second, lucky people are very good at  recognizing and talking advantage of  unexpected opportunities. Being relaxed  helps them do this.

Third,  they  trust their instincts in making decisions and they focus  exclusively on the issue under consideration. If your intuition is consistently wrong,  then maybe you should do the exact opposite,  like George Constanza did on a  Seinfeld episode.  

Finally, lucky people have superior coping skills that help  them weather  adversity. In fact they seem to thrive on it.

People may also do things that diminish their luck.  Unlucky  actions are not only foolish things, like walking down a dark alley with  100 dollar bills  hanging out of  your  pocket, but also more subtle  behaviors  like   walking around aimlessly looking vulnerable.  

When it comes to certain  crimes, perhaps we occasionally make our own bad luck. It has been said you can’t cheat and honest man. In the 1997  film Grosse Pointe Blank , John Cusack stars as  a professional  hit man, who says,  “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there.”  But we should also be careful about  blaming  innocent victims and turning into Job’s comforters, who wrongly assumed Job did something wrong to merit his misfortune.

In tough times perhaps  we can all improve our  luck  a little by being more mindful of opportunities.  As for  the existence of luck?  French poet Jean Cocteau said,   “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?