The Strange Power of Unlucky Charms

Photo: Nerida McMurray Photography

A few years ago, on our very first day in a new apartment, my two roommates and I received what may well be the worst housewarming gift in recorded history. The super stopped by to say hello, made some normal welcome chitchat — and then, leaning casually against the door frame, dropped this bomb at our feet: The last person to live in our apartment had died in there.

As we later discovered, this wasn’t quite true — the guy had died at the hospital, of natural causes. But in that moment, I looked around our living room and pictured a bloodbath. And then, as the super waved and walked away, I began preparing myself for the fact that I would never fall asleep again.

I should clarify, I guess, that I don’t believe in ghosts. But still, show me someone who doesn’t care about a death in their home, and I’ll show you — I don’t even know, because I can’t imagine this person exists. As the Village Voice has reported, about half of all states (including New York) have laws on the books protecting landlords from having to disclose that information to new tenants, precisely because it would make a property so much harder to rent.

Backstories matter, in other words. And from living spaces to engagement rings to clothing, we tend to fear possessions whose backstories are anything less than happy. Lucky charms can have real, measurable effects — past research has shown, for example, that people perform better at golf if they believe they’re using a lucky ball — but unlucky things have their own kind of power.

Matthew Huston, author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, explains that there are generally three ways that we assign luck, good or bad, to an object. The first is through association — say, a penny you had in your pocket the day you met your partner, or the tie you bought for an interview that you then bombed. The second is through symbolism, like socks with four-leaf clovers or black cats on them (or an actual four-leaf clover or black cat). And the third is through what Huston calls “magical contagion,” or the idea that something about a person can rub off on their possessions.

“We believe there is some sort of essence or physical property or specialness that can be transmitted via contact,” Huston says. It’s part of the reason why people affix such value to family heirlooms, or things previously owned by celebrities, or even historical items. (A person would likely be more inclined to shell out for a chunk of the Berlin Wall than a random piece of concrete, for instance, even if the two items are fundamentally the same in all but their backstories.)

It’s also the reason why living in a murder victim’s apartment, or even wearing his socks, would give someone the heebie-jeebies, even if it’s a perfectly nice place and even if they’re perfectly cozy socks. In 1994 paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers asked college students how willing they’d be to wear a sweater that had previously been worn by a healthy, average man, compared to one worn by a man who’d been “tainted” in some way: infected with tuberculosis, survived a car accident (misfortune taint), or convicted of murder (moral taint). The murderer’s sweater, they found, was nearly as unappealing as the one worn by a man suffering from tuberculosis, despite the fact that murderous tendencies, unlike bacteria, couldn’t be transmitted from one person to another.

More recently, research published last year in Advances in Strategic Management analyzed more than a million eBay listings for secondhand engagement rings, and found that the rings were much less likely to sell if the listing hinted that the previous owner had been through a divorce or a broken engagement. When the researchers also surveyed consumers about the rings, they discovered that even though people were more likely to believe these rings from failed relationships were real diamonds (as opposed to those sold by a jewelry store), they were also less willing to spend money on them.

One explanation for magical contagion, Huston says, “is that we kind of evolved to believe that various properties can be transmitted through contact, like temperature or filth.” As a side effect, our minds apply the same rules to nonphysical elements, too. Objectively, we know that divorce isn’t contagious; subconsciously, though, we’re repelled by a souvenir of it.

Psychologist Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, explains that something like a diamond ring is an especially fertile breeding ground for superstitious beliefs: “Superstitions in general are more likely to be associated with major events, things that supposedly only happen once,” he says, like a wedding or the birth of a child.

And like these life-cycle-based superstitions, certain unlucky objects are only unlucky by way of socialization — like black cats, or anything tied to the number 13. But for more specific things, like a particular diamond ring, “there’s a cognitive component — once you know the story behind [an object], it can be hard to forget that,” Vyse says. “They have various negative thoughts associated with them, and the worry is that you’re going to be reminded of that and it will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In some ways, he says, unlucky objects are like phobias: “Both are an emotional learning process. If you have a direct bad experience, then that situation or that object is going to evoke an emotion,” he says. “You’ve been told something about the ring or whatever the object is, and now you get the same emotional reaction simply because you know that there’s a story behind it.”

And sometimes, you can create the story yourself. Just as positive associations can turn a random item into a positive association, negative associations can imbue it with bad juju. The key, Vyse says, is that the item has to figure prominently in the situation — you’re not going to decide your shoes are unlucky, for instance, just because you happen to wear them on the same day you sprain your ankle. But if they’re new shoes, or you’d been debating earlier that day whether it was even sandal weather, or you were worried they didn’t match your outfit — if they were in your head when you tripped and twisted your ankle, you’re more likely to blame them, in some not entirely intentional way, for the injury.

Once you’ve branded something as unlucky, it’s hard to get rid of the association. “We’re very bad at trying to suppress thoughts,” Vyse says. Think of the famous “white bear” experiment, which asked participants to not picture a polar bear. Not only was it all but impossible, it also made the image pop into their brains with more frequency later on. In the same way, “once you know about the ring, or once you know about what happened in the apartment, it’s hard to stop thinking about that.” The other alternative, of course, is just not to ask — what you don’t know won’t lose you any sleep.

The Strange Power of Unlucky Charms