Birth of Superstition

Last night something amazing happened: the Chicago Cubs beat the curse of the Billy Goat.
They haven’t been to the World Series playoffs since 1945, and they haven’t won the World Series since 1908.
Last night that changed.
The Cubs beat the Dodgers to earn their spot in the World Series, and are looking to win the title. When they won, the whole city of Chicago erupted into celebration. You could hear the roar of (maybe) millions of people erupt all over town.
It was awesome.

Where was I?

For months I’d been looking forward to going to a live talk / Q&A / book signing event by Nick Offerman (of Parks & Rec fame). He wrote a book on woodworking, and is clearly in love with the “Making > Taking” philosophy.
During his hour of extemporaneous grab-assery I discovered he’s a die-hard Cubs fan. He set up a lectern to hold a laptop to stream the game while he talked. Anytime the Cubs scored, he’d announce it, and the audience would go wild.
I loved it. (I’m not a big fan of sports, but I do love shared experiences with hundreds of very enthusiastic fans.)

Something Peculiar

At the beginning of his talk, Nick took off his Cubs hat, put it on the shelf inside the lectern, looked at his watch, and then said, “7:23pm I put the hat on the shelf. That way, if the Cubs win tonight, I can do it again next year.”
And that got me thinking about the millions of people who have superstitious rituals.
You might have one, yourself.
Maybe you have lucky underwear. Maybe you have to blow on the dice before each throw at the craps table.
Whatever it is, it’s likely you have a peculiar belief that doing some action will have an influence on a situation you’re not directly able to influence.

Why is that?

Humans are fantastic at building associations. That’s how we learn; associating new information to stuff we already know. We associate outcomes with what we did before.
And this makes sense.
If we’re living in the wild, and you notice it usually gets cloudy before it rains, it makes sense to associate clouds and rain together. There’s a direct link between the two.
But we’re good at building associations even if the cause and effect aren’t so direct.

Ritual & Belief

There are two components to superstition. The ritual, and the belief surrounding what the ritual will do.
A ritual is a formalized pattern of behavior & actions that have symbolic merit. We have the ritual of marriage. The ritual of singing happy birthday.
Rituals help reinforce the feeling of belonging to a group or identity.
The belief about what the ritual does is when you start getting into superstitious territory.
When we perform some action, and it seems to lead to a particular outcome, we’ll tend to do that action again.
Cause & effect reinforcement.
Through our wiring to find causes for what’s happening in the world, our minds will latch onto any explanation, even if it’s purely a magical (aka: not real) association.
This is the heart of omens, superstitions, and peculiar behaviors that might look like nonsense to someone on the outside.


Logically we might realize where we put our hat at 7:23 has no real bearing on the outcome of the game (the players don’t know you did it, and they’re the ones who have a direct effect on how the game plays out).
So what’s going on?
Turns out the major player in all superstitions is uncertainty.
The more uncertain a situation, the more we look for ways to control it.
This is why sports are a prime breeding ground for superstitions. Nothing is more uncertain than sports.
Anything could happen!

Ancient Roots

Sports superstitions are actually a modern form of an ancient experience.
It’s thought that the cave paintings of animals aren’t solely an artistic expression. They’re actually a magical ritual.
A hunt certainly qualifies as uncertain, which increases the likelihood of magical thinking. It’s an effort to control the outcome, even if there’s no direct interaction.
By manipulating the symbols of the animals, the shamans who drew them were drawing into existence the outcome they wanted.


So the next time you find yourself in the grips of some superstition, know you’re a part of a centuries-old tradition of magical thinking.
(But if it involves never washing your lucky underwear, you might want to reconsider a new ritual.)

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