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Superstitions, Charms May Help People Overcome Obstacles

By Matt Andazola
Journal Staff Writer
          American downhill skier Lindsey Vonn earned gold in Vancouver after covering her bruised shin with Austrian milk curd, supposedly able to dull the pain and help her get down the mountain faster.
        Curative, magic cheese. Why not?
        It isn't that different from the superstitions a lot of us hold, and a few local experts — as well as a growing body of research — suggest that superstitious objects have real power, and might even help people overcome life's obstacles.
        It isn't that a lucky penny is lucky in and of itself, says Psychology Today news editor Matthew Hutson. A penny is just a penny.
        Rather, belief in an object's ability to bring good luck chips away at the perception of uncertainty, he says. Feeling uncertain can increase anxiety, which can, in turn, lower performance.
        For example, Hutson points to a recent series of experiments at the University of Cologne in Germany. In one experiment, subjects who were told to putt a golf ball into a hole were 35 percent more accurate if researchers told them they had a lucky ball. Similar results were obtained by subjects performing tests of dexterity and memory.
        "The research found that feeling lucky improves efficacy, most likely because it gives people a sense of control," Hutson says.
        In New Mexico, many such beliefs stem from Mexican and indigenous religious beliefs, such as talismans that can protect from the "mal ojo (evil eye)," rosaries hung on rear-view mirrors or eating humble meals of posole and beans on New Year's.
        Ask Corrales artist Roma Arellano, who makes pendants to deflect the evil eye and sells them online.
        "It's this talisman," she says, "something that you can wear as protection against other people's negative energy that's directed toward you.
        "You know, if there are evil energy or evil forces out there, you know that you have something so it can't really touch you."
        Some chile peppers, called "piquin chiles," bring luck to a house, says Ken DeWees, owner of Chile Traditions on Montgomery NE in Albuquerque. He says many customers come in looking for them.
        "They really do think they bring good luck and good health," he says, and he does, too. "I have them all over the place."
        It's an illusion
        Superstitious beliefs don't make logical sense, but we have them anyway. There are two main reasons such beliefs are irrational, says Benjamin Radford, the Albuquerque-based managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer, a national magazine.
        First, any object's magical properties are an illusion, he says. "If all it took was wearing a lucky shirt to bring home a lot of money from the casino, everybody would be wearing lucky shirts."
        Second, Radford notes a form of reflexive thinking known as the confirmation bias gives people false impressions of cause and effect — for instance, a golfer may notice she's wearing certain shoes when she makes a hole-in-one without paying any attention to wearing the same shoes when she went four-over-par on the same hole the previous weekend.
        "People are always looking for external reasons why things happen," he says. "The human mind looks for patterns, and sometimes it finds them even if there aren't any."
        Still, many people hold the beliefs despite knowing, on some level, that there's no logical basis for carrying a lucky penny or an evil eye deflector.
        "Intellectually you want to tell yourself that it's nothing," Arellano says, "but you just can't shake these things when it's such a core part of who you are."
        And Radford says investing magical belief in a object is easy because it doesn't require much of the believer. A guy can put on his lucky undershirt and walk out the door to a first date with little cost in thought or effort, but the benefit — psychological reassurance — is huge.
        "I know that knocking on wood, there's no logical reason why that would affect my fate," Hutson says. "But there's no harm in doing it, so I do it anyway."
        Sense of control
        Hutson says he thinks superstitious objects are vastly more common than most people realize. "Everyone has their own thing," he says. "Even if you don't explicitly believe in these things, some small part of you still believes and wants you to do these things."
        According to a 2007 Associated Press poll, about one in five Americans holds superstitious beliefs, the most common of which was the luck of four-leaf clovers.
        Even those who come from homes where superstitious belief was discouraged can find superstitious objects alluring, says Patty Cervantes, a school social worker who bought an evil eye deflector from Arellano.
        "I wear it because it's very artistic and it's beautiful, and it's got a lot of positive energy," she says. "If you feel like it's going to bring you good energy, it's going to bring you good energy."
        Any healthy method of dealing with the uncertainties of life is great, says Albuquerque psychotherapist Tamara Auger. She says a person's feeling of being in control of his or her own life, which makes lucky objects effective, is also central to being able to overcome life challenges.
        There comes a point, however, when placing too much faith in an object is unhealthy. If going without a lucky charm causes someone to break down, she says it has gone too far.
        "It shouldn't lead to extreme anxiety and fear" to go without a lucky object, she says. "If the anxiety is overwhelming, I would consider that to be obsessive."
        Some behaviors can border on obsessive-compulsive disorder, she says, and may require treatment to overcome.
        And some objects designed for good luck and good health, like DeWees's piquin chiles, are meant to disappear.
        "A lot of people eat them," he says, chuckling. "Eating them is part of the good health."

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