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The science of psych

Election Superstitions

7 election-time superstitions and why we subscribe to them

Yesterday I was on NPR's Talk of the Nation to talk about superstition. (They called me up after reading my article on magical thinking.) The guest who was on before me, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, had written an article about McCain's lucky charms; he discussed politicians' peculiar rituals. So I thought I'd provide 7 election-time superstitions and why we subscribe to them.

1. Rituals and charms. McCain carries a lucky penny, a lucky nickel, and a lucky quarter. And a lucky compass. And a lucky feather. Meanwhile, Obama tries to play basketball on the day of every election. People are very good at spotting patterns. Sometimes we see them when they're not even there, a byproduct of evolution. (It's better to connect the dots and see an illusory cheetah on the savannah than to miss a real one.) So if you perform an act or carry an item in your pocket and something good happens, you draw a connection and thank your lucky charms. Superstitions are especially prevalent in uncertain conditions, when the stakes are high, and when the costs are low. Each candidate (and any individual voter) is at the mercy of unpredictable factors beyond his control; the fate of the nation is at stake; and crossing your fingers or whatever causes little harm.

2. Jinxes. Although Obama looks the likely winner, many people refuse to say it. They don't want to jinx things, just as no one wants to comment on a no-hitter before the game is over. Psychologists Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich, who have done a lot of research on "tempting fate," demonstrate in unpublished research that one important reason people believe commenting on success invites failure is because they don't appreciate regression to the mean. Statistically, a string of successes is usually followed by a failure, and people mistakenly blame premature remarks for that failure. These events stick in their minds more than times when they don't comment and failure follows because commenting is a salient, identifiable occurrence, whereas saying nothing is not.

3. Illusions of control. One element of magical thinking is the belief that what you say, think, and do has unreasonable influence on the world. I'm willing to bet that most successful politicians harbor illusions of control over and above the average American. You're not going to reach for the stars if you don't believe on some level that you can fly. So shooting for high targets is good because sometimes you actually make them.

4. Conspiracy theories. If McCain wins, will the GOP assassinate him so they can use Palin as a puppet? Did Obama snub Clinton for VP because the Clintons planned to assassinate him? Conspiracy theories may not count as magical thinking, but they're based on some of the same cognitive heuristics, particularly spotting illusory patterns. Recently Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky published a paper in Science showing that when people feel lack of control (again, picture the powerless individual voter), they're more likely to see images in static, to rely on superstitious rituals like knocking on wood, and to form conspiracy theories based on discrete events.

5. Damning names. Barack Hussein Obama. Saddam Hussein. Osama Bin Laden. Research shows that we ascribe power to words and names (and logos), thanks to nominal realism, the belief that a label contains the essence of the thing it labels. In one study, people shied from drinking sugar water after they affixed a "poison" label to the container. In another, people's aim went downhill when the image of a baby was affixed to a dart board. We consciously know that it's not poison and it's not a real baby, but the associations still affect our behavior; the airy conceptual links bear real power. So the names Hussein and Osama carry the taint of bad men, and now Obama must wear that dirty laundry.

6. Watch and pray. Many people will be watching the election results come in with their fingers crossed, mentally urging the states to turn red or blue. Emily Pronin, Daniel Wegner, and colleagues showed in a 2006 paper the ubiquity of belief in mind over matter. If we think something and then it happens, we draw a causal connection. In one of the experiments, students who thought more about the Super Bowl as they watched it felt more responsible for its outcome. You will also find people who turn the TV off during games or election results, fearing that their attention will jinx or curse the events. That's particularly odd with elections, considering the votes have already been cast.

7. Karma cameleon. Going negative with your campaign sends bad vibes, vibes we hope will be repaid. With a loss. People like to think the world is a just place, where good guys win and bad guys eat it. (We believe in karma in part because senseless suffering is too icky to think about.) So McCain is kind of asking for it. I think people might also feel that voting for Obama will even the karmic playing field a bit, as a form of racial reparations. They'll sleep better at night. And lastly, anonymous robo calls carry bad karma. I'd much prefer to receive a call from the Brad who called my friend Ken not long ago. Now there's Crown Royal we can believe in.

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Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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