Editor’s Note: Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author. He writes the “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. His latest book is “The Uses of Delusion: Why It’s Not Always Rational to Be Rational.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden launched his reelection campaign on Tuesday, exactly four years after announcing his 2020 run. That bit of symmetry is unlikely to be mere coincidence. According to Biden’s own testimony during that successful 2020 campaign, the 46th president is “very superstitious” on the subject of elections. If we take him at his word, should we be concerned? After all, logic and common sense — two qualities you’d want in a president — dictate that the date of his reelection announcement has nothing to do with his ultimate success or failure.
Biden is far from the first president to employ a bit of mojo. Harry Truman hung a horseshoe over the door of his office, and Franklin Roosevelt reportedly would not dine in a group of 13 people or travel on the 13th day of the month. Ronald Reagan suffered some embarrassment when former White House chief of staff Donald Regan revealed that first lady Nancy Reagan consulted with an astrologer in San Francisco to determine when the president should travel or hold news conferences. According to Regan, the first lady’s intrusions into the scheduling process “began to interfere with the normal conduct of the presidency.”
Even the seemingly hyper-rational Barack “No Drama” Obama had a famous campaign superstition. As he told “60 Minutes,” Obama often arranged pick-up basketball games with his staff on the campaign trail. He played basketball on the day of the 2008 Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary, both of which he won. For whatever reason, he failed to organize a game before the early contests in New Hampshire and Nevada, which he lost to Hillary Clinton. So Obama decided he should always play basketball on Election Day. (Obama’s Election Day win in November 2012 came on a day the president’s basketball game included former Chicago Bulls stars Scottie Pippen and Randy Brown.)
People employ superstitions when there’s a lot at stake and the outcome is uncertain. There is arguably no bigger reward than the presidency of the United States, and any number of unforeseen things could affect the outcome — as Hillary Clinton knows well.
No one is born superstitious. You need to learn this kind of magical thinking, and that usually comes from being around other superstitious people, as I’ve written elsewhere. Once you acquire a superstition, it provides psychological comfort at the moment it is invoked. Those who are superstitious can experience a psychological benefit from the feeling that they have done one more thing to help achieve a desired outcome, something psychologists call the illusion of control. Even if they know on a rational level that their superstitions can’t work, people often say they feel better doing them than not: “I don’t want to take a chance.”
In addition, many superstitions are launched in an effort to recreate the magic of past successes. When you have achieved some very important goal, the surrounding circumstances often take on a heightened significance. This is how lucky sweaters, jewelry and ties are born, not to mention Obama’s basketball games and, presumably, Biden’s April 25 announcement.
But clearly all these superstitions are contradicted by science and reason. Should voters be concerned about presidents who buy into them? It depends. A 2014 poll found that 24% of Americans describe themselves as superstitious and 22% said they were “not too superstitious,” so we’re talking about a common set of beliefs that don’t signal psychopathology. However, normal people often do things that aren’t good for them. What about superstition?
Psychologists separate superstitions into positive and negative — good luck encouraging and bad luck discouraging. Of the two, the negative or taboo superstitions are the more concerning.
There is nothing special about the number 13, and any astrological prediction that a particular day or time is bad luck is complete bunk. But the person who believes in these fearful omens is forced to confront or avoid them whenever they appear. In my view, we would all be much better off if no one had told us that black cats and broken mirrors were bad luck because then we wouldn’t give them a second thought.
Moreover, irrational fears do not enhance the stature of the office of president or project confidence to the electorate. Ronald Reagan should not have altered his schedule based on the prognostications of an astrologer. Similarly, Roosevelt would have been better off without his anxieties about 13 people at dinner. This is undoubtedly why both these presidential superstitions were kept secret until Reagan’s chief of staff and FDR’s former secretary Grace Tully spilled the respective beans.
It is completely understandable and natural to be plagued by such fears. Unlucky 13 is arguably the most well-known superstition in the world, and both Ronald and Nancy Reagan came from the traditionally superstitious world of the stage. In addition, the president had survived an attempt on his life that made the first lady concerned about his safety. But understandable or not, these negative superstitions created needless anxiety and led to bad decisions.
In contrast, simple good luck superstitions have a number of potential benefits. First, they dispel anxiety rather than create it. Biden and Obama’s adherence to election-related superstitions undoubtedly felt good in the moment. In addition, these public superstitions can create a social bond. When a baseball team is losing, the entire team will sometimes wear their hats in funny ways in the dugout (i.e. “rally caps”) in an attempt to get a rally going. Beyond providing that welcome illusion of control, it can bolster morale and bind the team together.
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Similarly, Biden and Obama’s election superstitions — and to a lesser degree, Truman’s horseshoe over the Oval Office door — are expressions of a shared hope. The immediate psychological benefits of those actions are undoubtedly positive, and many Americans probably recognize this behavior as something they might do.
Superstition is not rational. If it were up to me, I would prefer our presidents not be superstitious at all. But if they insist on appealing to magical forces, let them make gestures of hope rather than fear. There is enough anxiety in the world already. We don’t need silly superstitions to bring us more.