Need to Undo a Jinx? Knock On Wood

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A new study explores why superstitious rituals — or avoidant behaviors, as the scientists call them — can fend off bad luck.

According to the latest research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, superstitious rituals like spitting, knocking on wood or throwing salt may actually keep away what people perceive to be imminent bad luck.

Scientists from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business conducted five experiments looking at behaviors that undo bad luck, and how these actions affect people’s perceptions of their luck.

First, the participants “tempted fate” by saying things such as, “no one I know will ever get into a car accident,” and then either knocked on wood, which they believed would prevent that statement from coming true, threw a ball, which did not have any superstitious connotations for avoiding back luck, or held on to the ball.

(MORE: Q&A: Why Superstition and ‘Magical Thinking’ Have Real Benefits)

Interestingly, the researchers exposed a pattern in the behaviors that people believed could undo a jinx. Actions such as knocking on wood, or throwing a ball away from themselves helped the volunteers to believe that they had successfully avoided the bad luck to come. These actions required them to direct a physical force away from their body, and may have contributed to the sense that the negative outcomes were being shed, or pushed away. Those who knocked on themselves or held on to a ball were less likely to think that the jinx had been successfully avoided.

“Our results suggest that the effectiveness is due, at least in part, to the avoidant nature of the act and its impact on mental simulation,” the authors write. “After a jinx, avoidant actions— even those that are not part of a superstitious belief system— effectively undo the effect of the jinx.”

While every culture has its own rituals for getting rid of a jinx, most, say the study’s authors, involve physically moving something away from the body. And the psychological consequence of that action — believing the jinxed event is then avoided — remains the same as well. So the next time you’re worried about tempting fate, don’t worry if you don’t have any wood around to knock. Just throw or push something away — it may work just as well.