Friday, October 4, 2013

Rituals and Bad Luck

Skepticism can sometimes get in the way of genuine scientific inquiry. The headline of this recent article is quite misleading, in that it implies that ritual actions can alleviate bad luck. In fact, the study found nothing of the sort because that question was not even asked - instead, it found that ritual actions alleviated peoples' concerns rather than actually affecting their luck.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, explained that people believe that negative outcomes are especially likely after a jinx.If someone says, "No one I know will ever get into a car accident," for example, it often feels that a car accident is likely to occur. But people's elevated concerns after tempting fate can be eliminated if they engage in a ritual to undo that bad luck.

The researchers, from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, discovered that actions which involve exerting force away from one's body are the most effective at undoing a jinx.Study author Jane Risen said: "Our findings suggest that not all actions to undo a jinx are equally effective."

"Instead, we find that avoidant actions that exert force away from one's representation of self are especially effective for reducing the anticipated negative consequences following a jinx."Engaging in an avoidant action seems to create the sense that the bad luck is being pushed away."

This is all fine and good as a psychological experiment goes, and the idea of incorporating "pushing-away" type gestures into magical rituals may be a nice piece of "sleight-of-mind" for undoing bad luck. However, what's so disappointing about this experiment is that all it needed was one more phase in which the subjects, say, engaged in a game of chance or something similar that would test whether or not the ritual action truly affected their luck.

Since this would have been so easy, why wasn't it done? It seems that it never occurred to the researchers that there was any possibility that luck could be influenced by a ritual. Instead, they confined their study to the subjects' beliefs rather than trying to measure any macrocosmic effect.

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