October 16, 2013
Knock, Knock, Knockin’ On…Wood?
In celebration of Halloween this month, I am writing some blogs about superstitions. My first was about the black cat. Today, though, I wanted to write about knocking on wood. Recently, redOrbit published an article about this very superstition. How fortuitous! As the article explains, “Many people who feel they may have tempted fate will ‘knock on wood’ to undo the possibility of something negative happening… A popular superstition in Western culture, knocking on wood is similar to practices in other cultures such as spitting or throwing salt after a person has tempted fate. Even those who don’t claim to be particularly superstitious will often pick up these habits.”
The redOrbit article identifies the roots of this practice: “…the practice may have derived from rituals performed by pagan Europeans that were used to chase away evil spirits or to prevent these spirits from hearing about and ruining a person’s good luck. Another possible explanation is that these tree-worshipping peoples laid their hands on a tree when asking for spiritual favor or after good luck as a show of gratitude to their nature gods. ” Furthermore, MSN tells that this superstitious expression derives from the good spirits that in lived in trees. mental_floss also supports both of these origin claims: “Before Christianity and Islam came around to spoil the party with their rules about idolatry, many pagan groups and other cultures—from Ireland to India to elsewhere in the world—worshipped or mythologized trees. Some peoples used trees as oracles, some incorporated them into worship rituals and some, like the ancient Celts, regarded them as the homes of certain spirits and gods.”
According to redOrbit, one study has found this practice may actually give the perception of changing bad luck even if it actually has no real-life impact. To find this, researchers first established that many superstitions like knocking on wood project bad luck or ill omens away from the person. In other words, the participant who knocks on wood pushes the bad luck away. To test how this worked, researchers conducted five different experiment, in which participants tempted fate by engaging or not engaging in an avoidant action like knocking on wood or a non-avoidant action, like throwing a ball. Here’s what they found:
“The researchers discovered that those who knocked away from themselves or threw a ball said they believed that a cursed outcome was less likely than those who knocked toward themselves or held a ball. The research team also discovered that performing an avoidant action led people to have a less dramatic mental image of the potential negative event.”
So even if the superstition of knocking on wood does not actually rid a person of bad luck, the perception and feeling of the act still holds an impact. People feel like their luck is better if they knock on wood. They likely know logically that knocking on wood is not going to change the outcome, but the mere action makes them feel better about their luck.
As I wrote in the black cat blog, I am not particularly superstitious, but knocking on wood is one that I occasionally play with. I do not think that the knock will prevent bad luck because I do not really believe in luck. I do feel like I am a part of a cultural thing, though. I can see how others feel better when I perform the action. And I have friends who would not dare tempt fate by ignoring this superstition.
Image Credit: Thinkstock