When flying Jennifer Aniston always boards an airplane with her right foot first. Michael Jordan wore his college shorts underneath his NBA uniform for his entire career. Jordan ended up winning six championships and the 46-year-old Aniston has flown countless times without incident.

Of course you don’t have to be famous to believe in superstitions. Many of us have uttered the phrase “knock on wood” or avoided stepping under ladders in the hopes of warding off bad luck. Superstitions are largely innocuous and allow for at least the illusion of control in situations where we feel like we have none. This begs the question: do superstitions work and if so why?

For this discussion it’s helpful to think about the nature of superstitions. Early humans had little information about the world they inhabited. They created associations based off their experiences. Say it had been raining for days and stopped suddenly when a person performed a specific action or picked up a certain object.

Our ancestors lacked access to sophisticated meteorological equipment and didn’t know the storm had moved out of the region. Instead, they related the change in weather to something they had done. Lacking any other evidence, this cause and effect belief system makes sense and indeed was reinforced by a lack of deeper knowledge.

We like to think we live in a pretty rational time in history. Our embrace of the scientific method, whereby an idea must be regularly tested before proven, should make us immune to irrational thinking. However, we know this simply isn’t true. We’re all prone to assumptions and beliefs that don’t make sense within this larger understanding.

Interestingly enough, a body of research suggest these erroneous thoughts may actually be useful. One study examined the idea of the jinx. Researchers asked a group of participants to say out loud that they wouldn’t get into a car accident during the upcoming winter. Those students who made this declaration felt they were more likely to get into an accident compared to those who didn’t make the statement.

Afterwards, some of those who said they wouldn’t get in an accident were invited to knock on wood. Those who took part in this superstitious activity reported they were no more likely to get in a crash than those who hadn’t jinxed themselves in the first place.

It seems the act of knocking on wood provided psychological comfort to the study participants. The theory is that the physical act of knocking is an avoidant action, one that exerts energy away from oneself. In a sense these people were pushing that negative energy or the thought of the event away from their own minds and bodies.

In another study, researchers at the University of Cologne asked 41 students to complete a memory game. Each participant brought with them a lucky charm. Before the game started a researcher took the charms away to be photographed and only a few were returned. Students who got their charms back before starting the memory game did much better than those who didn’t have theirs.

These studies and others suggest our superstitions have real power. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our minds are powerful instruments that have the ability to create healing out of inert substances like saline solutions.

If you think about it, superstition and placebo are very similar. Superstitions and placebos only work when we surrender to them. For instance, we’re told a sugar pill shouldn’t provide any medical benefits or that crossing our fingers doesn’t work and yet they do. Why? Because we were able to look past what we “know” and believed in an alternative with such conviction that we actually changed how our minds and bodies responded.

Those college students who thought their charms helped them actually created that reality. For whatever reason, they associated their particular charm with a feeling like comfort or success. They went into the memory game with more confidence and belief in their abilities which impacted their performance.

Now, superstitions don’t always work in a linear fashion. Jennifer Aniston’s preflight ritual likely doesn’t impact whether the plane lands safely or not. However, this habit does make it easier for her to board the plane and carry on with her business. Many of our superstitions work the same way. They help us overcome our fears but can also be a familiar bit of reassurance…knock on wood.

Image courtesy of Artotem is licensed under CC 2.0