Political Punditry on McCain’s Magical Thinking

podblack catThe PodBlack Cat can’t avoid crossing the path of this one! There’s an interesting offshoot from the US elections that has caught my attention recently – John McCain’s superstitious beliefs being openly touted

“I’m wearing my lucky shoes from today till Sunday,” McCain says from his bus on Wednesday. At the moment, his pockets contain the compass, feather (from a tribal leader) and penny (flattened, in his wallet). When McCain once misplaced his feather, there was momentary panic in the campaign, until his wife found it in one of his suits. When the compass went missing once, McCain assigned his political director to hunt it down. Weaver found it, and it remains safe, knock wood.

Primary day requires additional rituals. By the time you read this, Steve Dart, McCain’s lucky friend, should have arrived in South Carolina from California. He has been present with McCain for every Election Day since McCain first won a seat in Congress. McCain must sleep on a certain side of the bed, particularly before an election (and he never puts a hat on a bed–bad luck). Rain is good for Election Day, as are motion pictures. McCain requires himself to view a movie before the vote is counted. He fell asleep in his hotel room in New Hampshire before he watched a movie on primary day, but his staff didn’t panic. “We have superstition fire walls,” says Todd Harris, a spokesman.

Is this something that’s unusual? Not really, no. The notion of ‘magical thinking‘ has its roots in the work of educational theorist Piaget, involving a lack of understanding of physical and biological phenomena (Morris, Taplin, & Gelman, 2000; Piaget, 1929/1951). Usually as you get older, this somewhat decreases. But these things have a habit of sticking around – humans seek patterns, make meaning and will tend towards comfort zones.

A few astute commentators have remembered the influence on Ronald Reagan’s Presidency by astrologist Joan Quigley. John Henke of The Q and O Blog points out several superstitious statements evident in Hillary Clinton’s soundbites –

Hillary Clinton, in January 2008 – “I can’t think that far ahead, because it’s bad luck. I’m very superstitious.”

Hillary Clinton, September 2007 – “You know, I’m sort of superstitious so I don’t talk about what I might do.”

Yes, studies have shown that women tend to be more superstitious in general than men (Dag, 1999; Vyse, 1997; Wolfradt, 1997) – even though quite rightly, a Guardian article point out that it doesn’t mean we should have more contempt for women for this tendency. Even during her husband’s reign in office:

President Clinton in June 2005 – “Well, first of all, I’m superstitious.”

President Clinton, January 2008 – “I’m wildly superstitious about not looking past the next election.”

Are they just using those phrases as just figures of speech rather than somehow admitting that there’s a rabbit’s foot in their pockets? One thing we can say about why people will tend towards superstition, regardless of their political ambitions: discriminative stimulus and partial reinforcement – people will do what works for them because it’s happened before or viewed it happen to others they’ve seen succeed or fail.

Is it a sign of something seriously wrong with you, if you’re holding these particular views of the world beyond childhood? Not really – psychologists who research superstition, like Richard Wiseman, have acknowledged earlier research and the findings that said there were correlations between between negative superstitions and various irrational and problematic personality –

“…superstitious belief has traditionally been linked to a wide variety of indicators of poor psychological adjustment… relatively poor psychological adjustment, including low self-efficacy (Tobacyk & Shrader, 1991); high trait anxiety (Wolfradt, 1997); irrational beliefs (Roig et al., 1998); an external locus of control (Dag, 1999; Tobacyk, Nagot & Miller, 1988); magical ideation (Thalbourne, Dunbar, & Delin, 1995; Tobacyk & Wilkinson, 1990); psychopathology (Dag, 1999); field dependence and suggestibility (Hergovich, 2003); and dissociative experiences (Wolfradt, 1997)

– but they’re not the only explanation, according to his findings:

Positive superstitions may serve different psychological functions to negative superstitions. Indeed, as with other forms of “positive illusions”, beliefs in positive superstitions may be psychologically adaptive.

This resulted in his paper ‘Measuring Superstitious Belief: Why Lucky Charms Matter‘, which looked at to what degree people ‘endorsed particular superstitions according to correlations to neuroticism and life satisfaction’ and found

…there was a significant interaction between gender and superstition type, but no interaction was found for neuroticism. A significant interaction was found between superstition type and life satisfaction.

This was also used in Aarnio and Lindeman’s work at the University of Helsinki, (Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model) which then adopted more items involving lucky charms and the positive effect they have on users, in their research into superstitions. In 2007, Lindeman and Saher’s paper on the differences concluded that ‘the results support the argument that category mistakes and ontological confusions underlie superstitious and vitalistic thinking‘:

.. the findings of this study provide a preliminary basis for the idea that superstitions reflect a confusion of core knowledge that can be found among well-educated but superstitious adults.

Are people in politics particularly superstitious then? No again! The habits can be picked up in pretty much any profession, with some major studies involving athletes and people in the acting professions, much of this detailed in Vyse’s seminal work Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition.

If you’re interested in some of the historical sources that influence superstition involved in the acting professions, you can even watch it yourself on The TANK vodcast’s interview with a theater historian:

And what of scientists? Are they immune? The ‘why not’ is is wonderfully detailed in the Columbia Uni article “And the Nobel Prize for luckiest science charm goes to….”:

Daniel Nelson struggled for two years in graduate school desperately trying to isolate “periodontain,” a gingivitis-causing protein crucial to his burgeoning scientific career… Nelson left his sombrero behind in Georgia, as a good-luck charm for future students. Years later, postdoctorate and graduate students still wear the “purification sombrero” every time their research needs a jolt of good fortune. “They have all heard the story,” Nelson said, “and know if they don’t wear the hat, they will be cursed with two years of impure protein.”

Sombrero? It seems the wackier the better too… eh, you may as well have fun at the same time:

Caryn Evilia, a postdoctoral biochemist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, uses a dragon, this time stuffed and blue, as a good luck charm that she rubs before important experiments.

“Whenever someone is having a bad day, we bring him down,” said Evilia, who studies protein stability of aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases and methylases under extreme temperature conditions in archeabacteria.

“My lab mates like to put Twinkies at its feet,” she said. “Don’t be fooled, I eat the Twinkies.”

What if you’re a Bad-Luck Astronomer?japanese ghost toys in Astronomy

Astronomers at the Subaru Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii hang Japanese “teru teru bozu,” fist-size cloth ghosts, to ward off bad weather, while scientists at Johns Hopkins University Medical School have built a shrine of stuffed or plastic mice to the “god of mouse immunology.”

Looking around the comments on the McCain news item, I even found a few personal stories being passed around in science professions:

… If there weren’t many admissions on a given call night, it was forbidden to use the “q word” [quiet] or to in any way refer to the low number of admissions you’d performed. Once your shift was over, you could say any q words you wanted. Some call teams carried around totems [stuffed animals, lucky pens] that were viewed as being helpful to appease the call gods.

It wasn’t just residents who exhibited superstitious behavior. One night in the Pediatric ICU, I observed a nurse place the crash cart [with drugs and other equipment to handle codes (critical situations when a patient stops breathing or their heart stops)] between the bed of two patients who were on the edge of coding. When I asked her what she was doing, she replied “warding off evil spirits”.

That particular tale appears to stem from a 2005 study entitled ‘Superstitions Amongst Perioperative Nurses’ – and I shouldn’t have to remind anyone about emergency rooms in hospitals and how ‘full moons’ make the medicos there think that it increases the number of injuries called in!

I also noticed the following news item (Reuters) that indicated another reason for McCain’s preference for the lucky paws in pocket:

His close friend and political ally South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, travelling with McCain on Friday, smiled and said superstition is all a part of being a fighter pilot. “I have not met a fighter pilot who isn’t that way. They live on the edge. They have to believe it gives them an advantage.”

What’s probably more important, as the blog Cosmic Variance pointed out – is what influence he’ll have on science, such as his stance when comes to nasty viruses.

So, as odd as it may sound, I don’t particularly care if anyone, including athletes, actors, scientists or even politicians carry their own touchstone or avoid certain situations because they feel they might cherry-pick bad events more often and get depressed… Fact is, you’re in the minority if you don’t have a ritual of some sort.

More important is when you’re in a position of power, you make damned sure that you get some facts under your belt about health, science, society, education, etc., before you make policy decisions – and realise that not everyone tends towards talismans when times get tough and they’re not that effective anyway. Because it’s far more luckier to cover all the bases.

By the way – you may like to check out more on Magical Thinking on the Psychology Today article that’s out for March/April, thanks to Matthew Hutson.


Dag, I. (1999). The Relationships among Paranormal Beliefs, Locus of Control and Psychopathology in a Turkish College Sample. Personality and Individual Differences, 26, 723-737.

Lindeman, M. & Aarnio, K. (2007). Superstitious, magical, and paranormal beliefs: An integrative model, Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 731-744

Lindeman, M. & Saher, M. (2007). Vitalism, purpose and superstition. British Journal of Psychology, Volume 98, Number 1, pp. 33-44.

Mandell, D.L, Claypool, L. D & Kay, D.J. (2005). Superstitions among perioperative nurses. AORN Journal.

Morris, S. C., Taplin, J. E., & Gelman, S. A. (2000). Vitalism in naive biological thinking. Developmental Psychology, 36, 582-613.

Piaget, J. (1953). The origin of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Paul.

Rudski, J., & Edwards, A. (2007, October). Malinowski Goes to College: Factors Influencing Students’ Use of Ritual and Superstition. Journal of General Psychology, 134(4), 389-403.

Shearer, R. & Davidhizar, R. (2000) Luck: What the nurse should know about it and how it affects nursing situations. International Journal of Nursing Practice 6, 2-6.

Thompson, D.A & Adams, S.L. (1996). The full moon and ED patient volumes: Unearthing a myth. American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 14, 161-164.

Wolfradt, U. (1997). Dissociative Experiences, Trait Anxiety and Paranormal Beliefs. Personality and Individual Differences, 23, 15-19.

Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. (2004). Measuring superstitious belief: Why lucky charms matter. Personality and Individual Differences, 37, 1533-1541.

Vyse, S. A. (1997). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. New York: Oxford University Press.

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