The VICE Channels

    Why Do We Knock on Wood?

    Written by

    Lex Berko


    Image via Wikimedia Commons.

    It certainly doesn’t change anything. Sure, knocking on wood might feel good, but you’re just as likely to fail that test, catch that flu, and crash that bike as you were before. And yet, there’s something so satisfying and comforting about doing it, something that eradicates that creeping feeling of panic that overcomes you after you tempt fate and jinx yourself.

    According to a group of researchers from the University of Chicago, there may be some deep psychological roots behind why knocking on wood and other superstitious rituals, like spitting or throwing salt, may be so prevalent cross-culturally.

    The hypothesis: All three of those rituals involve avoidant behavior. Avoidant behavior, as the name suggests, means that each action exerts force away from the self.

    Over the course of five experiments, the researchers explored the efficacy of avoidant versus non-avoidant behaviors in reducing discomfort after tempting fate. They also sought to figure out just how that reduction worked.

    What they found is that even if an action is not a culturally recognized as a superstition, it has a high probability of reducing discomfort post-fate-tempting if it is avoidant in nature. Knocking on wood works, but so does throwing a ball away from oneself. Additionally, they suggest that rituals like this operate by “[reducing] the perceptual clarity of people’s mental representation for a jinxed event.” In other words, after you’ve done something avoidant, your mind cannot picture a jinxed event as clearly anymore and, consequently, it seems less likely to happen.

    So basically, while superstitious rituals don’t change actual outcomes, they can and do change our perceptions of those outcomes.

    I’d love to be able to extrapolate this to the digital realm, but I’m having trouble thinking of computron-related tics that could be classified as avoidant behaviors. Basically, when you sit at your computer, you can typically only engage in a predetermined series of actions: typing, opening and closing the laptop, fidgeting with the mouse. None of those are avoidant in nature.

    I guess you could throw your computer across the room. That would definitely count, though I wouldn’t recommend it and it definitely won’t make you feel any better. My own rituals include touching all four corners of my computers if I feel like I’ve jinxed myself. But you know, that’s probably not superstition and it’s definitely not avoidant. It’s probably just minor OCD.