Millions of people around the world celebrate the 17th March in a variety of ways - from marching in a parade down Armagh Street in Dublin; dying the Chicago River green; partying in a number of pubs in downtown Reconquista, Argentina – or falling in front of my slow-moving car in central Perth, while wearing a green “St Patrick’s Drinking Club” shirt, Dr Seuss-style emerald hat and drunkenly texting on a phone.
Despite the heart-stopping experience of checking on the well-being of craic-chasing pedestrians (who assure me that they’ve got the luck of the leprechauns as they laugh off tomorrow’s bumper-shaped bruises and hangover) – the day is usually a cheering one, filled with goodwill and Guinness Beer. Around 34 million people in the USA lay claim to Irish ancestry; even President Obama boasts of Irish cousins that he’s visited in the past. Cereal hiding lucky charms, the handing out of shamrocks, potential pots of gold at the end of rainbows – no matter where we are in the world, people are generally familiar with the claim that there must be something to the “luck of the Irish”… and I’m not just saying that because I graduated from a university that features a leprechaun as their football mascot.
The study of luck and how it is viewed is a familiar one to students of psychology and an important aspect of studying superstitions. Many of us may be familiar with the phrase “Luck is probability taken personally”, which I’ve read as being attributed to Chip Denman, manager of the Statistics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. So, how personally is luck taken and must it mean that it’s akin to any other “four letter word”? Can you really up the ante when it comes to being a lucky person and improve the statistical likelihood of having the “Luck of the Irish” (so to speak)?
Early researchers in psychology defined superstitious belief as a disposition or tendency to ascribe phenomena which are of a natural explanation to occult or supernatural causes, or an accepted belief whose falsity has been scientifically demonstrated (Warren, 1934). Skinner (1948) initially studied the ‘superstitious’ responses of pigeons and stated that experimental birds behaved as if there were a causal relation between their behaviour and the presentation of food. He then made an analogy to human behaviours such as adhering to rituals to change one’s luck when playing cards (Skinner, 1948).
Studies have since gone into how similar feelings of control influence paranormal beliefs (Malinowski, 1948; Shermer, 1997) and research has also proposed relationships between a more external locus of control and a greater belief in paranormal phenomena (Tobacyk & Milford, 1983). For example, Vyse (1997) proposed that when dealing with situations where outcomes are influenced by forces outside of one’s control, many individuals resort to superstition and/or a belief in miracles as a means of explaining why a particular event has occurred. Specifically, in these instances people believe that fate controls their outcomes, and hold superstitious beliefs in order to influence their future – as reflected in problem gambling or use of lucky talismans, engaging in simple acts such as touching wood or crossing fingers in an effort to prevent bad fortune and / or bring on good (Vyse, 1997).
That sort of thing then results in trusting lucky charms and the like; A Dictionary of English Folklore, by Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (Oxford University Press, 2000) has this to say about the clover (or shamrock) in particular:
The first English reference to the luck of the four-leafed clover dates from 1507: whoever finds one and keeps it reverently can know ‘for all so true as the gospell yet he shall be ryche all his life’ (Anon., The Gospelles of Dystaues, part 2, p. xv). Others say it brings luck in love, or a long healthy life. Nowadays plants producing four-lobed leaves are commercially grown, and the leaves encased in plastic are sold as charms.
A charm reported twice from East Anglia in the 1850s involves ‘a clover of two’, i.e. a piece with only two leaves: if a girl puts one in her shoe, the next man she meets (or someone of the same name) will be her husband (N&Q 1s:6 (1852), 601; 1s:10 (1854), 321).
Research from the last decade on luck challenged the ‘negative’ aspects that were predominant in studies of superstitious belief. Wiseman and Watt’s Luck Scales (2004), focused on incorporating what they determined to be overlooked ‘luck-related’ items in the study of superstition within one of the seven sub-scales in the Paranormal Belief Scale or ‘PBS’ (Tobacyk, 1988; Tobacyk & Milford, 1983). The superstition sub-scale consists of three items: the number “13” is unlucky; if you break a mirror, you will have bad luck; and that black cats can bring bad luck.
Since Wiseman and Watt (2004) recognised that all of these were essentially “negative” superstitions, with omens or behaviours that were associated with detrimental or unlucky consequences, they suggested that responses to this sub-scale would only correlate with poor psychological adjustment, such as low self-efficacy (Tobacyk & Shrader, 1991); high trait anxiety (Wolfrad, 1997); and an external locus of control (Dag, 1999; Tobacyk, Nogot, & Miller, 1988). By suggesting additional items such as good-luck talismans and body rituals (such as touching wood; crossing fingers; carrying a charm), it was proposed that ‘positive illusions’ (Taylor, 1989) would serve as psychologically adaptive rather than maladaptive (Wiseman & Watt, 2004). The integration of positive and negative luck items as proposed by Wiseman and Watt has influenced similar studies on incorporating both lucky and unlucky items when measuring superstitious beliefs (Andre, 2006; Li Dan, Yanjun, & Li, 2006; Kramer & Block, 2007).
Wiseman also wrote a rather popular ‘self-help’ style book called The Luck Factor that is referenced by a range of fields, especially business and marketing. In it, he suggests that it’s down to how you think and behave: maximising opportunities by being open to new experiences; listening to lucky hunches and gut feelings; expecting good fortune and work on being persevering and seeing the positive side of any bad luck rather than dwelling on it (Wiseman, 2003). Research I’ve conducted for podcasts like the Token Skeptic and panels I’ve been fortunate enough to be on at Dragon*Con’s SkepTrack (which I highly recommend attending) has revealed to me that superstitious behaviour is not only natural but can arguably be beneficial when used to build self-confidence and even controlled to a certain extent.
While we may disagree as to whether this is just self-deception and delusion – not so far removed from falling for the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy willingly – I hesitate to say that such an outlook on life is intrinsically wrong, or that it’s really such a bad thing to occasionally look for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Kylie Sturgess blogs at FreeThought Blogs and is also the host of the Token Skeptic podcast, which looks at pop culture and the communication of science. Her M.Ed thesis investigated the measurement of paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs, focusing on gender differences. She was a Master of Ceremonies at the 2010 and 2012 Global Atheist Conventions. Kylie is the author of the Curiouser and Curiouser column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, atheism and science. You can follow her every intriguing move on Twitter: @kyliesturgess and via numerous links found at www.kyliesturgess.com.