Random AsidesSkepticism

Ask Surly Amy: JINX!

Ask Surly Amy

Dear Surly Amy,

Today, I defend my PhD Dissertation. Despite my adviser’s assurances and my own knowledge that I will do well I’m incredibly nervous.

I was thinking about this last night as I was getting ready for bed. I spoke to my adviser earlier in the evening and she refused to make plans for after the presentation to avoid jinxing me. Similarly, I have avoided speaking too confidently about a successful defense.

I am an atheist and skeptic. I know that jinxes are just superstition and won’t affect the outcome but to some degree I feel that participating in them calms some of the anxiety that I am feeling.

Is it really a bad thing to feel this way? Does participating in a very non-skeptical act trump my knowing it isn’t real? Do my personal psychological benefits outweigh the fact that to others I am supporting irrational beliefs?

Thanks for any help or advice!


Dear Bridget,

I realize this answer is after the fact so I hope the PhD Dissertation went well!

No, it is not a bad thing to feel or act that way. In fact if you want to alleviate any guilt you might feel by participating in the jinx call it a ritual or psychological/statistical game. That would be the truth of it.

For example, when the Skepchicks are having our behind the scenes chats whenever one of us types and send the same message we type-yell, “JINX. YOU OWE ME A COKE!” In all honesty, I don’t even know how the whole coke thing got started. Well, I know how the whole coke thing got started in the 80’s but that is a topic for a different Ask Surly Amy. The point is, Skepchicks are, as a group, an extremely non-superstitious bunch yet we play along with fun rituals for a giggle here and there as well. Statistically speaking, odds are we are going to say the same things quite often and when we do, we get to see who can type, “JINX” faster. We have appropriated superstition into a fun game. As long as you are aware that there is no definitive link with an action such as, “stepping on a crack and actually breaking your mother’s back” then it’s perfectly fine to skip and jump down the sidewalk if it makes you feel better.

Now, if we were discussing something where harm was involved, like if for example you were getting a coffee enema every Thursday in order to fight a cancerous tumor growing in your chest, then there would be trouble. Otherwise, remember to study and prepare then relax, and have a good time with life!

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I’ve mentioned this before but, as a gamer (read: person who plays actual pencil and paper RPGs), I run into a LOT of dice superstitions. A lot are silly or weird… like the guy who would put his “misbehaving” dice in the freezer as punishment, or another who “executed” dice that were performing poorly by sticking them in a microwave… and lining up his other dice to “watch”. The more harmless ones include switching dice if one consistently rolls poorly, not letting anyone else touch your dice, or setting them all so a certain number is “up” (usually the highest).

    As such, I have made a conscious effort to break those superstitions in myself. I use only one set of dice per game; I don’t switch. I freely let others borrow mine. I don’t set my dice in any particular order (which is murder with my cube of d6’s, because it’s kinda fun trying to make several 9-die layers all turn exactly the same way).

    I do it to break the magical thinking I see others fall into. My dice are random number generators that happen to be pretty and sometimes sparkly. They’re not mystic talismans that maliciously hurt my character. They’re just dice.

    Or so I tell myself. I know the little fuckers are trying to embarrass me.

  2. Ignoring the superstition angle, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” is a fine skeptical sentiment. Put another way, if you expect to do well, but keep mum about it, you get to tell everyone the good news afterwards. If you tell everyone beforehand, plan the party, etc. and *don’t* make it, you have the humiliating task of telling everyone you didn’t make it. Sort of a Pascal’s wager without the “God” part.

    There is a grimmer form of this advice involving pregnancy and limiting the number of people you tell about it before some cutoff that I forget.

  3. Anyone who watches sports believes in jinxes. We all have stories where a commentator or fan says something like “Bobby hasn’t given up a home run in eleventy billion innings” and sure enough, Bobby promptly gives up a home run, etc.

  4. @andyinsdca: But what about all the times that didn’t happen? We often remember the hits and forget the misses in cases like that.

    I’m actually reading a great book right now called, “How We Know What Isn’t So” it’s all about the psychology of why people believe things that are false. I recommend it!

  5. First, congratulations! :)

    I’m guilty of magical thinking in this sense–I admit it. If I take an umbrella, it will be less likely to rain. Basically it boils down to “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” And when I defended my dissertation I had a special rock in my pocket, the same rock that my grad student friends had used during their defenses and exams. It totally worked–I passed! ;) Oh, well, there was also the blood, sweat and tears I shed in the research and writing…

    Again, congratulations! Go celebrate!

  6. Just before the Super Bowl, Green Bay Packers Coach, Mike McCarthy, took his team out to get measured for their championship rings. Some analysts thinks this helped their confidence to win the game the next day.

    I think using superstition is poor form. If you succeed, then your ritual “worked.” If you fail, then you didn’t perform the proper ritual. I believe you should be relying on your perspiration and not whether you have your lucky underwear on.

  7. @Mark Hall:

    If I meet anyone who punishes dice, I’ll have to leave the group. That’s really ridiculous. I can just barely tolerate the little ritual where they will roll a handful of d20s and exlude the lowest one until there is only one left. If I’m ever DM, I’ll make a high-level monster attack them while they’re doing it.

    However, I am now very intrigued what melting dice would look like. Hopefully there’s a youtube video so I won’t have to experiment myself.

  8. I’d think the jinx avoidance thing is not much more than an attempt to avoid unwarranted pressure and/or distracting thoughts. Whatever works and whatever little mind game you can play with yourself to improve performance seems reasonable. And when it comes to public speaking some people use rituals as effective tools and a way to relax and overcome significant fears.

  9. @catgirl: Blasphemy. You anger the Dice with your words. You risk character death or worse by expressing such sentiments. May Gygax have… (rolls dice)… pity upon you.

  10. @pciszek:
    I agree that not talking about the outcome of the dissertation doesn’t exactly qualify as a superstition. It is a little mind trick that also works for me when I have to make a presentation. That and 20 mg of propanol0l usually does the trick!!

    I think it is good skeptical behavior to avoid begin superstitious. My kids and I call them stupidstitions. When they were little we would take extra deep breaths when we drove by graveyards, we picked the number 13 whenever possible and generally did the opposite of whatever the superstition demanded.

  11. If you don’t want to jinx yourself focus on constructive activities that you can construct a rational argument for doing. For example ‘I joke about jinxing to remind myself that I will be judged on my merits because I find it helps me reduce stress’ is, in my mind, a legitimately rational explanation for your behavior provided you experienced a coinciding decrease in stress. Its not science, but what do we do as skeptics when there is insufficient scientific evidence? We remember that science is not prerequisite for logic and we use what we do know to take our best guess. We accept that its status as our best guess is subject to revision pending further investigation, but we make the decision anyway because that further investigation isn’t likely to happen in time.

  12. let’s talk sports. I am not allowed to watch any Green Bay football games (or at least when they COUNT). I was actually in the hospital this year for the super bowl and was informed I had to avoid any tv covereage. Why? Because skeptic family that we are when it come to Green Bay it all goes out the window. My sister in law is a Steelers fan (big problem this year) she HAS to sit in her Steeler lucky chair with her Steelers lucky ball wearing her Steelers lucky shirt. She is a scientist. I guess my avoiding the televsion won out (though I was blamed for the close game as when I had to walk down the hallway – required if you don’t want a blood clot- I went by rooms with the game on and overheard some) Are we NUTS? No, we’re just sports fans. Honestly even the most ardent skeptic will YELL advice to players via their tv set.

  13. @kittynh: Er, Green Bay won, right? I missed the last 5 minutes because I fell asleep due to my massive overdose of Calm Forte I took that morning at 10:23. (Washed it down with coffee, should that have mattered?)

  14. I have an anti-superstitious ritual I perform at work. Right before I execute a particularly risky operation, I announce to my coworkers “Changing parameter x – nothing can possibly go wrong!” This prompts me into one last mental review of what could go wrong, and sometimes I catch myself before something terrible happens.
    It used to really bug my coworkers, but now I catch some of them doing it too.

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