The following is an excerpt from The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy and Sane, by Matthew Hutson (Hudson Street Press, 2012).
There are certain laws of nature everyone accepts. The surest way to bring about rain on an overcast day is to leave your umbrella at home. Is your line at the grocery store moving too slowly? Switch lines. That will definitely speed it up (minus you). And if you’ve hit a series of green traffic lights that just might get you to the post office before it closes, comment on your string of success. Ah, there’s the red.
Do people really believe such actions can change their fortunes?
In recent years Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell have shed more light than anyone on the phenomenon of tempting fate. When they asked people to answer rationally whether exchanging a lottery ticket for another ticket would increase the chances of their old ticket winning, 90 percent said no. But when asked to answer the same question using their gut, 46 percent said yes. (Subjects thought selling the ticket to an enemy gave it the best chance of winning.) In another experiment, people said wearing a Stanford shirt after applying to the school would reduce the probability of admission.
Risen and Gilovich argue that belief in tempting fate rests, in part, on a three-step mental process. First, some behaviors make outcomes seem especially bad because they highlight the contrast between what happened and what almost happened. Being stuck in a slow grocery line feels worse if you switched into that line than if you were always in that line, because you were just in a faster line. Second, negative scenarios engage our imagination more than positive ones (as they should: a fish can feed a man for a day, but a blowfish can kill him for a lifetime). So if you’re thinking about switching lines, the thought of switching to a line that then slows down is worse than the thought of staying in a slow line, and therefore it looms larger in your head. Finally, the more you think about something, the more likely it seems.
To summarize the three-step process, negative outcomes would feel worse after tempting fate, which makes their possibility especially attention-grabbing, and thus more likely-seeming. Sounds like a rickety series of cognitive contraptions requiring a lot of effort to execute, but it’s completely automatic. In fact, Risen and Gilovich found that asking subjects to count backward by threes from 564—a cognition-hogging task—made them more likely to believe showing up to class without doing the reading would get them called on.
Tempting fate usually refers to one of two things: taking unnecessary risks or displaying hubris. Attempting to cheat death or showing presumption about success will inevitably invite rebuke. As a proverb says, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”
During the 2001 anthrax scare, a reporter for the Washington Post called up Scott Ian, a guitarist for the thrash-metal band Anthrax. “People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if you got anthrax?’ ” he told the reporter. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’d be hilarious.’ ” To be on the safe side, he filled a prescription for the antibiotic Cipro. “I will not die an ironic death,” he said.
“The universe seems interested not only in punishing certain behaviors but in punishing them a certain, ironic way,” Risen and Gilovich have written. We predict that negative outcomes will share some association with their antecedent—they’ll fit the crime. Therefore, wearing a Stanford T-shirt will have no effect on the weather, and carrying an umbrella will have no effect on school admissions. And naming your act Anthrax offers no reason to stock up on, say, Rogaine. (Naming your thrash-metal band Male Pattern Baldness, on the other hand...)