Don’t Step on the Crack or Else …

Faith Evans reports on ritualized good luck, back-up insurance plans, gaps into the spirit realm, and other reasons why many of us compulsively avoid sidewalk cracks.

The consequence for stepping on sidewalk cracks has not always been a broken back. Past versions of the superstition claimed that stepping on cracks would tear apart families, inflict general health problems, or even cause rain.

Do Tic Tacs Cure Migraines?

If you’ve heard of the placebo effect, then you know that Tic Tacs can cure migraines! Not really. In medical studies, doctors have found that some people report their symptoms improved, even if they’ve only been given sugar pills.

The crazy thing is, the placebo effect is not confined to medical studies. We do it ourselves, every day through magical thinking, which refers to the psychological effect where we try to shape circumstances around us using nonsensical means.

Avoiding sidewalk cracks, knocking on wood, yelling at inanimate objects when they’re not working properly — all of these constitute magical thinking. None of these actions will change the outcome of an event, but we do them anyway. Why?

A video explainer above by Faith Evans on the dangers of stepping on sidewalk cracks.

Magical Thinking is a matter of well-being

It’s stressful to deal with uncertainty…so you should definitely wear your lucky socks to that job interview. And maybe look for a heads-up penny on your way there.

According to Healthline magazine, the superstitions we create through magical thinking are comforting. They help us stay optimistic and alleviate stress. When everything else is out of our control, we can fall back on good luck rituals for confidence.

So, you might not be able to change the outcome of a major health crisis, or influence whether your boss is going to give you that raise, but you can avoid stepping on that sidewalk crack. Just in case.

However, there are a few negative side effects of leaning on magical thinking.

It’s also completely irrational

Most people are already terrible at math. We overestimate our chances of winning the lottery, and underestimate the odds that we’ll die in a car accident. Magical thinking makes those mental calculations even more haphazardous.

One study by Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found that people with insurance perceived the risk that something bad might happen to them as lower, compared to subjects without insurance. Researchers attributed this to magical thinking — somehow, the feeling of “being covered” warped their perception of basic probability.

Overactive magical thinking can even be a sign of mental health problems, such as OCD, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

But it’s deeply ingrained

Every time we lean on magical thinking and it works out, that particular superstition is reinforced in our minds. This is where a level of confirmation bias comes into play: you brought your lucky rabbit foot to the big game, and your team won! Therefore, your rabbit foot really is lucky.

And, since we’ve collectively shared many of these superstitions for centuries, they have a social stamp of approval. Even early Americans and Europeans avoided sidewalk cracks. According to HowStuffWorks, cracks represented places where Earth and the spirit world met. Interacting with them was certain to cause bad luck.

Maybe you don’t buy any of it — you’re too rational, too skeptical, and you don’t need magical thinking to comfort yourself. But…maybe once in a blue moon, you do avoid walking under ladders, opening umbrellas inside, or stepping on sidewalk cracks — strictly for practicality, of course. That’s the power of magical thinking: it affects even the self-proclaimed non-magical-thinkers.

Explainer Article and Video by Faith Evans for the Reynolds Sandbox

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Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.