Even people who claim not to be superstitious engage in rituals intended to reverse a jinx after “tempting fate.” Knocking on wood, spitting and throwing salt share a common thread: they involve avoidant actions that are directed away from the self. A new study finds that these actions help people feel better by making it harder to imagine the feared tragedy.

Investigators at the University of Chicago and the National University of Singapore first engaged participants in some small talk, then turned the conversation to a topic pertaining to a specific misfortune. In one experiment, for example, a researcher talked about car accidents and then asked, “Do you think that there is a possibility that you or someone close to you will get into a horrible car accident this winter?” Some subjects chose from one of three neutral answers; others chose from one of three answers designed to be presumptuous, such as “No way. Nobody I know would get into a bad car accident. It's just not possible.” A pretest had confirmed that these answers effectively triggered the sense that participants had tempted fate. The subjects were then instructed to try clearing their thoughts while either rapping their knuckles on a tabletop, knocking on the underside of the table or performing no action.

Results show that those who had tempted fate were more likely to be concerned about car accidents following the conversation. For participants who knocked down on the table, however, the perceived likelihood of an accident was reduced to a similar level as those who had not tempted fate. Those who performed no action or who tapped upward remained more worried. The researchers also tested other movements that suggested either approach or avoidance. For example, tossing a ball—or even just pretending to—reversed the perceived jinx effect, whereas holding a ball did not. In all, five experiments published last June in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that avoidant actions of all types eased people's mind.

The power of avoidant actions may lie in their dampening effect on our imagination. Further questioning revealed that subjects who performed neutral or approaching actions, such as knocking on the underside of a table or holding a ball, had more vivid mental imagery of the negative outcome than people whose actions were avoidant. The researchers suggest that avoidant actions are common across cultures and comforting even to those who are not superstitious because they help obscure the mental picture of the feared event.