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DAWN’S COLUMN - Superstitious Minds

POSTED September 16, 2013 5:44 p.m.

As I write this column, it’s Friday the 13th and this morning a coworker sent out a mass, funny text message about remaining calm, but then warning about all the things not to do on this date.

The text was a joke but it’s funny, both humorous and odd, that some people really get wrapped up in such superstitions. Personally, I don’t read anything into it. I don’t worry about black cats crossing my path. I’m the type to chase them so I can pet them. Nor do I freak out if my umbrella gets opened indoors because I accidentally pushed the automatic open button. Spilled salt? I sweep it away, instead of tossing it over my shoulder.

I wonder sometimes about how some of these well-known superstitions got started. Some superstitions exist because people associate things that have no connection at all, in order to explain an odd or bad occurrence or to prevent one from happening. Many superstitions have their origins in the folklore. Certainly, some things cannot be explained. People in general like to feel like we’re in control, so if we can’t explain it, we’ll make something up.

Take for instance, the Mayan Calendar.

Last year, one of my colleagues had serious paranoia over the whole end-of-the-Mayan-Calendar doomsday business.

This coworker cancelled an appointment that was on Dec. 21 – which was also the date of “the end,” according to the calendar – near the Bay Area because she didn’t want to be trapped over there in case something happened. You know, something like a geomagnetic reversal of the earth’s poles because of a massive solar flare, which would then cause the power to go out everywhere and cause worldwide panic.

All of this because the calendar didn’t go on to infinity. Therefore, it’s time for the apocalypse? Maybe the guy who carved it in ancient times just got tired of chiseling.

In my office, we all gave this person a lot of grief in staff meetings. Occasionally, we still bring it up and dish out more grief.

If it’s the end, then it’s the end. We’re just dust in the broad scheme of the universe anyway and any effort to stop Armageddon would be futile. Don’t get me wrong, being prepared is one thing, but being the next Chicken Little definitely won’t prevent the sky from falling.

There’s a beer commercial on TV that highlights sports fans’ superstitions and how they think their actions will influence the game. With Stevie Wonder’s hit “Superstition” playing in the background, it shows fans doing things like rubbing a rabbit’s foot, crossing their fingers, having cans arranged in a pattern in the fridge, and so on, all to work some sort of mojo on the game’s outcome.

It seems that sports are especially full of these superstitions.

I heard a couple of stories recently that some local athletes had some bizarre rituals before games. One would only eat a certain kind of processed, pre-packaged, junk food meal because one time he had his best game ever after eating it, so it became his pre-game meal. Another wouldn’t wash a certain article of the uniform – I’ve actually heard this about a lot of athletes.

Seriously though, not washing athletic socks or other athletic attire all season long doesn’t make a difference of whether an athlete wins a game or performs well or not. Although, the smell may repel the opponent, it doesn’t make you run faster, jump higher, hit the ball better, or anything like that.

I knew someone once who had a fit if a hat was set on a bed and absolutely would not wear yellow into the rodeo arena.

For some reason, nearing the end of the hockey season, the NHL players grow out their beards. They, and a number of broadcasters, don’t shave until the playoffs are over.

Why?

“Tradition. Things women don’t understand.” That’s what a male coworker told me.

I’ve read that rituals seem to help athletes focus, regardless of how weird they are, like tapping their bat a certain number of times or touching all the lockers in the locker room before a game. But I don’t get it. Last time I checked, none of us possess magical powers. There are also some behaviors ingrained in us since childhood. Some people won’t step on cracks in the sidewalk and probably don’t even realize they do it.

The famous psychologist B.F. Skinner worked with pigeons and found them to be superstitious too. He observed that the birds performed rituals because they thought their behavior affected the outcome of the reward, which was food – even though the food was administered at certain intervals regardless of their actions. Whatever the bird was doing at the time of the food reward, it would keep on doing it over and over, even if no food was given.

They never figured it out.

This experiment apparently shed light on human behavior.

Hmmm. Some humans can behave like pigeons?

Well, I’m glad that doesn’t describe me. Knock on wood.

 

Dawn M. Henley is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News, and The Escalon Times. She may be reached at dhenley@oakdaleleader.com or by calling 847-3021.

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