Search the Site

Episode Transcript

I can’t think of a single superstition I believe in. I don’t knock on wood for good luck. Black cats do not scare me; I think they’re beautiful. And I think it’s silly when tall buildings pretend they don’t have a 13th floor, and call it 14 instead — and yet, according to the Otis Elevator company, about 85 percent of tall buildings in the U.S. do this! “Triskaidekaphobia” — that’s a fear of the number 13. In China, it’s the number four that’s considered unlucky. Again, personally, I don’t have a problem with any number. I do refrain from walking under ladders, but that’s just common sense — I don’t want a brick or a hammer to fall down and hit me on the head. So, the standard superstitions, they just don’t move me. For instance, I pay zero attention to my horoscope — although that is such a Virgo thing to say. What about you? Are you superstitious? We put this question to our listeners.

JUSTIN: You better knock on wood, or you’re gonna break a bone!

JOYCE: I went out to dinner and noticed that my tip rounded out to $6.66, which is the devil’s number.

Those are typical superstitions. We heard some unusual ones too. Here’s a listener named Maria:

MARIA: If you lick food off of a knife, it’ll make you a cruel and mean person. 

And Andrew:

ANDREW: The most superstitious person I know is my mother-in-law, who won’t kill a cricket because it is unlucky, and she won’t put her wallet or purse down on the ground because it brings ill fortune upon the family.

And here’s my favorite, from Meredith. Actually, Meredith’s mom:

MEREDITH: When somebody did something wrong to her, she would write their name down on a little slip of paper and she would put it inside of a cup and stick that into the freezer. And this would curse them. We don’t know where this freezer magic cursing tradition came from, but she would go so far as to put the license-plate number of someone who cut her off in traffic on a piece of paper in the freezer.

According to the market-research firm Ipsos, 21 percent of Americans believe in spells or witchcraft; 36 percent believe in ghosts; roughly 40 percent believe in U.F.O.’s — although I’d argue that “believing in U.F.O.’s” is categorically different from ghosts and witches. Meanwhile, nearly 30 percent of Americans do believe in astrology, unlike me, and that belief has been rising. An astrology app called Co-Star has over 20 million downloads and last year it raised $15 million in venture capital. The “psychic services” industry is worth about $2 billion. So: what are we to make of this intense belief in the supernatural?

Stuart VYSE: It is irrational. And yet it’s very popular.

That’s Stuart Vyse. He is a retired psychology professor and author of a book called Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.

VYSE: Many people are superstitious, probably more than admit to it. I’ve seen a number of surveys over the years that suggest that roughly 50 percent of people will admit to being at least a little superstitious.

Among wealthy countries, the U.S. is disproportionately high on superstitious belief. We are also disproportionately high on religiosity, which may not be a coincidence. Believing in ghosts doesn’t seem all that different from believing in angels. We asked Vyse for some further thoughts about the types of people likely to hold superstitions:

VYSE: There are some studies that suggest that among college students, humanities majors and art majors are more likely to be superstitious than natural science majors. But everyone is susceptible, and there are plenty of superstitious scientists out there. I remember working in a lab once where we had this elaborate equipment that had this lore about, “Don’t do this because the machine won’t work right,” and so forth. And it was almost like some kind of a primitive incantation that you had to do in order to make sure the equipment would work properly. And so clearly, scientists are susceptible as well. 

Today on Freakonomics Radio: superstition in places you wouldn’t expect.

Peter LEESON: The embracing of superstition at the official courtroom level isn’t totally rejected in the American legal system. 

We’ll talk about why we believe, even when the evidence argues against it.

Ash MIERZEJEK: We naturally, as humans, tend to build stories and tales around the things that are really impactful to us.

And: the history of superstitions, curses, and maledictions:

LEESON: “May they be cursed in the head and the brain. May they be cursed in fields and in pastures.” 

What do broken-hearted knitters, urinating goalkeepers, and the C.I.A. have in common?

*      *      *

VYSE: This is a very common thing where people will say, “I know this is silly, but I just don’t want to take a chance.”

That, again, is the psychologist Stuart Vyse.

VYSE: We are of two minds, often.

When he says we are “of two minds,” he’s thinking of something specific about how our cognition works.

VYSE: The common view of cognition these days is the idea that we have System 1, which is an intuitive system of thinking that doesn’t engage the heavy machinery, versus System 2, that is logical, can calculate, and so forth.  

You may be familiar with System 1 and System 2 from the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

VYSE: For some people, I think that these two are in conflict when it comes to superstitions. 

And therefore, Vyse argues, the belief in superstitions is not so black and white. There is a lot of gray area. 

VYSE: I would never really encourage someone to be superstitious. I think that we need more reason and rationality in the world in general. But having said that, it’s clear that they have psychological benefits for some people. Rituals of any kind — and religious rituals certainly fit into this category — can have these benefits: lower anxiety, feeling good. 

Vyse argues that a superstition can be especially helpful in a stressful or high-stakes setting. With so much on the line, you want to do whatever you can to gain a bit more control. Think about a high-stakes political election.

VYSE: One of the more famous political superstitions is Barack Obama’s need to play basketball on Election Day. He started this superstition when he played a game on the day of the Iowa caucuses in the 2008 campaign, and he won that caucus. And then, for whatever reason, he failed to organize a pickup game on the next contest, which was the New Hampshire primary, and he lost to Hillary Clinton. And so from that point on, it was locked in. He never had an Election Day without a basketball game.

Many professional athletes have their own rituals. Serena Williams, for instance, wears the same socks when she’s on a winning streak. The baseball player Wade Boggs famously ate chicken before every game, and before every at-bat, he would draw the Hebrew letter “chai” in the dirt with his bat, even though he’s not Jewish. Sports fans are of course also superstitious. Here’s what we heard from a listener named Kaela. She and her family are fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers:

KAELA: There was a time, where I think it was the Super Bowl, and my grandmother was in the bathroom when we got a touchdown and the entire family told her, “No, you have to stay in there because we scored.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowls; no team has won more. Wade Boggs was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Serena Williams is one of the best tennis players ever. So do these superstitions work?

VYSE: Studies of athletes can only be correlational. The studies that have been done show that the better-performing athletes are more likely to be superstitious than the ones who are not doing well. But that doesn’t really show us that superstitions work. It just shows us that good players have them.

In other words, mediocre and bad athletes probably have superstitions as well; we just don’t hear about them.

Stefan SZYMANSKI: What a lot of superstition in sport is about is the idea that the athlete can control it by a particular action. 

That’s Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan who studies and follows a variety of sports.

SZYMANSKI: In a sport that I like, cricket, there are an awful lot of examples. There’s a very famous superstition surrounding a particular score in cricket. Lots of runs are scored in cricket and when a particular total where the three digits are the same — 111, 222, 333 — it’s called “Nelson.” 

As in Admiral Nelson. Long story as to why it’s named after Nelson; you can read about that on your own if you’re so inclined. Anyway, the Nelson is not a lucky thing; it’s unlucky.

SZYMANSKI: And there was one umpire in cricket who believed that this was so, cursed that he had to hop up and down until the score passed beyond 111. There are televised examples of this that you can see of this guy jumping up and down.

The curse is a common form of sport superstition. Consider the Curse of the Bambino. That was the nickname for Babe Ruth, the best player in the early days of baseball, and the most popular as well. He was accordingly paid a very high salary and wanted even more; so his team, the Boston Red Sox, decided to sell his contract to the New York Yankees. This was in 1919. At this point, the Red Sox had been routinely winning World Series; the Yankees didn’t have a single championship. After Ruth was sold, the two teams’ fortunes reversed. The Yankees, with Babe Ruth jump-starting their success, would win eight World Series over the next 20 years. They’ve since won 19 more, making them the winningest baseball team ever. The Red Sox, meanwhile, in the aftermath of letting Babe Ruth go, went 86 years without a championship. Their misery finally ended in 2004.

ANNOUNCER: Red Sox fans have longed to hear it: The Boston Red Sox are world champions!

Finally set free of the Curse of the Bambino, the Red Sox would win the World Series again in 2007, 2013, and 2018. Other alleged curses, meanwhile, endure.

SZYMANSKI: One of my favorites is the Bobby Layne curse, which is believed to affect the Detroit Lions. 

Szymanski happens to live near Detroit, and he’s co-author of a book called City of Champions, about Detroit’s sporting legends.

SZYMANSKI: Bobby Layne was the star quarterback of the 1950s, and he led the Lions to N.F.L. championships. And then they traded him. And that was often blamed in the decades that followed for the poor performance of the team.

When Szymanski says “poor performance” — that doesn’t quite do justice to the Detroit Lions’ record since they traded Bobby Lane in 1958. In the 63 seasons since, not only have the Lions not won a championship, or even made it to the championship game; they’ve had only 20 seasons with a winning record. In 2008, the Lions lost all 16 of their games. Meanwhile, the team that received Bobby Layne in 1958 was the Pittsburgh Steelers. As we noted earlier, the Steelers have since won six Super Bowls. (This was probably because Kaela’s grandmother agreed to stay in the bathroom all those years.) Stefan Szymanski, however, he is not superstitious; he doesn’t believe the Lions were cursed because they traded Bobby Layne.

SZYMANSKI: The fact is that the team has been so bad, the management of the team has been so awful, you don’t need a curse to explain it. 

Still, why is sport such a magnet for curses and jinxes? Szymanski says it’s based on a misunderstanding of probabilities.

SZYMANSKI: Up until the 16th century, people who gambled on dice thought that the outcome of throwing dice was governed by fate. And what changed was people started to think about counting what the possible outcomes are, and thinking about probability. And that conflict between explaining outcomes through fate and through probability lies at the heart of our psychological attitude towards sports today. Because the outcome of a sporting event is the combination of skill and luck. And the question is: what is governing that luck? People like me believe it’s driven by probability, which is quantifiable. But a lot of people think it’s driven by fate.  

DUBNER: Well, let me be the devil’s advocate for a moment, or the curse’s advocate. When you talk about the events that are uncontrollable, that are due to luck or chance or fate, whatever we like to call it, it strikes me that one of the most common of those in sport is injury. Very seldom does an athlete do something that concretely will lead to injury, and very rarely does an opponent specifically try to injure them. So if a player gets injured, particularly at an inopportune time, couldn’t you chalk that up more to fate than probability? 

SZYMANSKI: That to me is an empirical question. We should look at the data to see whether there are any systematic patterns. Big data has been in sport now for quite a while, and we’re very good at honing down probabilities from these large quantities of data.

DUBNER: So Stefan, if I were to ask you what share luck or chance plays in the outcome of a median sporting event, how would you think about that? 

SZYMANSKI: Well, it very much depends on the sport. One of the key factors is how much scoring there is in a game. For example, in a professional basketball game, there’s much less scope for luck to play a role because how the ball rolls against the rim can make an outcome to one basket, but it’s unlikely to do so systematically over the entire game. Whereas in soccer, a 0-0 outcome is very common and just winning by one goal is the most common way of winning — luck can play an awfully large part in the outcome. 

DUBNER: It would seem then as though soccer is perhaps more amenable to curses, or belief in curses, than a sport like basketball. Is that true? 

SZYMANSKI: It is. One of the weird ones — I don’t know if you’ve heard this one — Liverpool Football Club, it wasn’t until recently that they won the English Premier League Championship and they’d been a dominant team in the 70s and 80s. And Bruce Grobbelaar, the Zimbabwean goalkeeper, believed there was a curse which could only be broken if somebody urinated on all four goalposts at their home field in Anfield, which apparently was accomplished, I believe by him, sometime, a couple of years ago.

DUBNER: Lovely. 

SZYMANSKI: Which led up to the winning of the English Premier League championship.

DUBNER: I guess if one wanted to be sympathetic toward curses, and the breaking thereof, one could imagine that, well, perhaps the opposing goalkeeper was drenched in the odor of urine the whole match and played poorly. 

SZYMANSKI: All sorts of things are possible. I hate to be the dull rationalist here, but I think we’re better off if people just believe that there’s a rational world out there, which means you can disregard the curse.

Among the most famous sports curses are the Sports Illustrated cover jinx and the Madden Curse, which concerns the Madden football video game. The idea is that when an athlete appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated or the Madden game, something bad will happen to that athlete, usually an injury.

SZYMANSKI: It’s certainly the case that many of these players who appeared on the covers did get injured in the season following. So I got interested in trying to see whether I could draw out any statistical relationship here. So I put together a little data set of these players’ histories, and then looked at the number of games that they played in a season. And then included a specific variable to allow for the year you appeared on the Madden game. And it was, I have to say, statistically insignificant. It didn’t look like they were any more likely to play fewer games in that season than in any other, given their age and age profile. Bear in mind, by the time you get onto Madden, you’ll usually have several years of experience, and so you’re already more likely to be prone to injury. 

DUBNER: In other words, it’s not a curse; it’s just math.

SZYMANSKI: You’re going to find it very hard to dissuade me from that position. That’s what the data seem to say to me. Of course, you might come and back and say, “Well, that’s just a piece of faith on your part anyway, right?”

DUBNER: The Sports Illustrated cover jinx is a bit different because they have many athletes on the cover in the course of a year and also they’re typically being celebrated for some recent triumph. So if they perform worse afterwards, or get injured, is that simply regression to the mean? They were doing much better than average to earn themselves onto the cover and then afterwards, they fall back to earth?

SZYMANSKI: Regression to the mean is certainly a credible explanation, particularly because when you get onto the cover, it’s probably because there has been a significant jump in your performance in recent times. It’s not the same as a constant upward trend. The other thing to say is there are lots of magazines published. There are thousands and thousands of opportunities to observe this kind of relationship. So the idea that once in a while it will appear in a particular case seems not surprising at all.

This tendency to seek out coincidence — to seek out what look like patterns — would seem to be ingrained in human psychology. Our psychologist friend Stuart Vyse once designed an experiment to observe this.

VYSE: I asked college students to play a very simple video game where they were not told exactly how points were made on the game. 

Students had to press buttons to navigate a maze. In one condition of the experiment, the player would get a point whenever they made a correct move. But, in another condition of the experiment:

VYSE: If I made the points come on a random schedule, they would come up with very strange theories about how it works. Some students said, “You have to press the buttons very slowly or else it will go off.” Others developed these strange patterns and if you didn’t do it exactly the right way, then you wouldn’t get a point. 

In other words, if you have enough incentive to look hard, you will find a pattern. Consider one recent cover of Sports Illustrated; it was their 2021 Olympic Preview issue. It featured the American gymnast Simone Biles, who wound up dropping out of the team final in the Olympics to “focus on mental health,” as she put it. So does that count as the jinx at work? Or consider a recent N.F.L. preview issue from Sports Illustrated. Its cover featured the long-suffering Cleveland Browns, with the headline “The Browns Are Back.” But the Browns weren’t back. That season, they won only six games and lost 10. The Browns were a risky choice for Sports Illustrated to celebrate on their cover; among the N.F.L. teams who are nearly guaranteed to stink in a given year, the Browns are right up there. In the interest of full disclosure, I say this as a supporter of the aforementioned Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers and Browns have played each other 46 times since the year 2000; the Steelers have won 37 of the 46, with one tie. Again, this is probably all thanks to Kaela’s grandmother. In the second half of today’s episode: the relationship between superstition and U.S. law enforcement. And: if you are a knitter, there is one thing you should not knit for your beloved if you want them to stay your beloved.

Nancy RICCI: The relationship will fall apart, that’s what I’ve heard.

*      *      *

We’ve been talking about superstitions and curses. We should probably talk a bit about the history of curses.

VYSE: Curses have been with us probably since the beginning of civilization. 

That, again, is the psychologist Stuart Vyse.

VYSE: But they were very different in the ancient world. They were much more common in the ancient world. They tended not to be promoted by established elites or the established religion. They came from magicians from the street.  

Imagine you’re walking home through the town square after a hard day of candlemaking or blacksmithing and you are angry at someone. Maybe it’s a lazy co-worker or a corrupt politician. For a small fee, you could have one of these street magicians put a curse on this person. Let’s say you curse them with scabies. Now, does the curse work? Do they actually get scabies? Even if not, think of the benefits. Curse benefit No. 1: You feel better just getting the anger off your chest. Curse benefit No. 2: You get to imagine this person suffering from scabies. If they actually get scabies, you can of course claim credit. And, curse benefit No. 3: You get to tell this person that you’ve put a curse on them. And now you’ve gotten inside their head, which is almost better than giving them scabies. But ancient curses went beyond personal vendettas. Here’s the economist Peter Leeson, from George Mason University.

LEESON: My general sense is that belief in cursing performs an important governance function.  

Leeson is known for studying unusual topics: witch trials, gypsy law, the economics of pirates — and, perhaps inevitably, curses. So what does Leeson mean when he says that curses perform a “governance function”?

LEESON: When we have fewer resources available to us, when societies are poorer, we can’t afford things like large professional police services and a professional judiciary and so on. So in that case, certain superstitions are relatively lower-cost ways of getting to the same kinds of outcomes. 

Think back to medieval Europe and the practice known as a trial by ordeal.

LEESON: What they would do — and by “they,” I mean clerics. It’s clerics, priests, who were administering all of these ordeals — boil a pot of water, throw a stone or a ring into it, ask the defendant to plunge his arm into the water and pluck out the stone or ring. Then they would wrap up the defendant’s arm and revisit it three days later. And if it was determined by the priest to be what they called “foul” within the wrapper — which is to say, showing serious signs of having been burned — the defendant was guilty of the crime. And if there was no signs of injury, then he was considered innocent of the crime.

So that’s one form of governance. Peter Leeson argues that curses also played a larger, more institutional role. For instance, in West Francia —

LEESON: Which was sort of the predecessor to the Kingdom of France. 

— and where power was concentrated among the royal, religious, and feudal elite, you had this situation:

LEESON: You had this situation where there were not effective public institutions to protect property rights.

Meaning, no police to call, no impartial courts to hear your claims — which gave opportunity to the bad guys, or what Leeson calls “strongmen.”

LEESON: The strongmen posed a threat to people’s property rights, and communities of monks and canons were among those who were most threatened.  

Ordained monks and canons all being members of the clergy.

LEESON: They were among the largest property holders in all of West Francia. 

But holding property did not guarantee that these clerics would be protected from the strongmen.

LEESON: Clerics didn’t actually wield the means of self-protection physically. When you became a cleric, you gave up your arms, and you gave up your horses, and so on. 

So how could these unarmed religious communities protect their property?

LEESON: What the communities of clerics did, faced with an inability to rely on government to protect their property rights, was that they resorted to reliance on divine curses. Those curses were often called maledictions, and what they did was call upon God or some of God’s assistants — for example, saints — to unfurl fulminations that would harm the individuals who were depredating the clerics’ property. 

DUBNER: Peter, could you read me one of these ancient maledictions? 

LEESON: I could. Okay. Here’s a malediction that comes from the Abbey of Fefchamp, circa the late 10th Century. “We curse them, and we separate them from the company of the Holy Mother Church and of all faithful Christians, unless they change their ways and give back what they unjustly took away. May they be cursed in the head and the brain. May they be cursed in their eyes and their foreheads. May they be cursed in their ears and their noses. May they be cursed in fields and in pastures. May they be cursed when sleeping and when awake, when going out and returning, when eating and drinking, when speaking and being silent. May they be cursed in all times and all places.”

DUBNER: Okay, so: if I’m the local strongman — or, let’s say, a strongman from two provinces over — do I care? Do I believe that these clerics have issued a malediction? Do I really think that’s going to stop me from storming their castle and taking over their property?

LEESON: So it’s critical that, in order for these curses to have the ability to protect property rights, that their ostensible targets have some belief in the power of those curses to, in fact, harm them. And during the 10th through 12th Centuries in France, there’s pretty good reason to think that that would have been basically everyone who held that belief, the strongman included, because there was, at this time, a very strong religious belief, a belief that was grounded in the Bible. And in the Bible, what you find is a curious mix of brotherly love and frightful wrath. 

DUBNER: In other words, even the strongman — the bad guy — would have been scared enough of the curse that, theoretically, the issuance of said curse would have acted to ensure the property rights of the clerics, yes?

LEESON: Exactly. So historians at least claim that strongmen were, in fact, to a large extent deterred from plundering clerics’ property as a result of these curses. 

DUBNER: I’ve got to believe that there was a strongman at one point, who was cursed and said, “Eh, forget it, I’m going to take over the castle anyway,” and did, and then wasn’t struck down in the head and the eyes and the throat. And then everybody else would have said, “Ah! These curses — they’re just language, they mean nothing!” Did that not happen? 

LEESON: It’s hard to say. You’re right that it probably did happen, but the scope for it to happen was extremely limited, precisely because of the excessively vague, encompassing, and unverifiable nature of the curses. It ended literally with: “May you be cursed in all times, in all places.” At some point in your life, something bad is going to happen to you. When any bad thing happens to you at any point, it is possible for you to interpret it in light of what the curse said.

DUBNER: It’s pretty clever.

LEESON: Thanks. Wasn’t my cleverness though, it was the monks’!

So that was centuries ago, when the world was somewhat less orderly — and much poorer.

LEESON: And then, as we become wealthier, we’re able to substitute away from reliance on the superstition towards reliance on these more secular, traditional means of protecting property rights.

More secular and traditional means state-run courts, and a modern law-enforcement system. And yet, some relics of these superstitions remain:

LEESON: An example that’s actually very similar is reliance on lie-detector tests in the contemporary American criminal justice system. Lie detector tests are, in most cases inadmissible. The inadmissibility is a function of the fact that lie detector tests are scientifically bogus. But they’re heavily relied on in the background, in the investigative phase. They’re relied on by the F.B.I., by the police, by the C.I.A..

And that’s because — this is Peter Leeson’s argument, at least — because if you are unwilling to take a lie detector test, it may signal that you have something to hide.

LEESON: It’s as though our legal system doesn’t want to go full-bore, it doesn’t want to embrace the absurdity of the fact that, “Hey, we’re relying on superstition to improve things.” But they’re still letting it happen in the background. On the other hand, the embracing of superstition at the official courtroom level isn’t totally rejected in the American legal system. There is, of course, Bible-swearing, which has a very long history in our legal system.

DUBNER: I’m curious if anyone’s ever done a study on the incidence of perjury among those who’ve testified in a court who swore on a Bible who were believers in the Bible and those who were atheists. 

LEESON: That’s a great idea. No, I don’t know. It used to be mandatory to swear an oath on the Bible. But now, for non-believers, you’re permitted to swear an oath on some legal document or something instead. So there’s still oath-swearing. Maybe I’ll just study that. 

Or, perhaps, Peter Leeson could study this:

MIERZEJEK: As soon as you start dipping your toes into the community, there are a lot of superstitions.

Lynda VILLA-FOURNIER: People have warned me. It’s risky.

Ubaldo FELICIANO: I mean, that’s a lot of intimidation. It feels overwhelming.   

What is the source of all this intimidation, risk, and superstition? I’ll give you a hint. We were talking to customers at a craft shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, called Knitty City. And we were talking about something known as:

MIERZEJEK: The sweater curse!

RICCI: The sweater curse. 

And the sweater curse is what?

RICCI: When you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and you make a sweater for this boyfriend or girlfriend, then there’s a curse. The relationship will fall apart. 

Why on earth would knitting a sweater for a loved one put a curse on the relationship? No one seems to know why — only that it does. We weren’t able to locate any reliable data on the sweater curse, so we thought we’d learn what we could from an insider.

MIERZEJEK: My name is Ash Mierzejek, and I work at Knitty City and also as a knitting teacher. I’ve been a knitter for about eight or nine years now. And I’ve worked at yarn shops for about three years. 

Mierzejek showed up to our studio interview in a shawl she had knitted herself. It was gorgeous, and extremely detailed — strands of magenta, yellow, white; a variety of textures; multicolored bobbles. Now, why’d she choose to wear such a beautiful shawl for a radio interview?

MIERZEJEK: So you know how they tell you for an interview that you should put on some lingerie?

I will admit, I did not know that.

MIERZEJEK: It really is a huge confidence booster. It feels great. 

And so today, with the shawl:

MIERZEJEK: I told my husband, I’ve got all my emotional-support knitting on. It definitely makes me feel like something that I’m proud of is on display in a way that’s very meaningful to me. 

DUBNER: What do you think you would be doing, Ash, if you weren’t working at Knitty City?

MIERZEJEK: Before I was a knitter, I was a corporate strategy consultant. So I’d probably be really miserable still. I’d probably be crunching numbers and not feeling too great about it. 

DUBNER: So how did your personal knitting revolution happen? How did you take it up?

MIERZEJEK: As a corporate strategy consultant, I traveled a lot — a lot, a lot. There was a point in my life when I was commuting to Albany every day, so I spent about six hours a day on the train. And I was frankly just going bananas. So my boyfriend at the time thought I needed to chill out and bought me a sock-knitting kit. You can’t really start with socks unless you’re a bit of a masochist. It’s not the easiest thing to pick up off the bat; you knit with five needles at a time. So I just took two tiny needles and made a very long strip on the train. And when I got to the end of my ball, I unraveled the whole thing and started over. And a couple of times through that, I realized this is helping me be a lot more relaxed.

DUBNER: Did the boyfriend knit as well?

MIERZEJEK: He didn’t. He is now the husband. He still doesn’t craft, but he’s very warm because I keep making him things. So it was a good investment in the long run. 

DUBNER: Did you ever knit him a sweater? 

MIERZEJEK: I have not. I’ve made him scarves, hats, a quarter of a sock, mostly scarves and hats. 

Mierzejek has knitted several sweaters, just not for her husband. She told us a sweater is one of the most complicated projects a knitter can take up. It requires a certain mastery just to get the shape right, and it’s also expensive. The sweaters she’s made have cost as much as $150 in materials and took between 50 and 100 hours of labor.

MIERZEJEK: I’ve done the math before for curious family asking me why I don’t sell my sweaters. One sweater I would personally sell for about $1,500. I would increase the price if the yarn was black, and I was going blind knitting it. I would increase the price if it was a very complex pattern. 

DUBNER: So, Ash, I assume you’ve heard of the sweater curse. 

MIERZEJEK: Oh, yes. Definitely. 

DUBNER: Do you believe in it?

MIERZEJEK: I don’t believe that there is a supernatural reason for the sweater curse. But I do believe that it’s a very real, crushing disappointment that you as a knitter can experience and that we naturally, as humans, tend to build stories and tales around the things that are really impactful to us.

DUBNER: Now, Ash, you say you don’t really believe in the sweater curse. But you and your husband have a relationship that was formed with knitting as a component. And yet you’ve never knitted your husband a sweater. So persuade me that a little piece of you doesn’t believe in the sweater curse. 

MIERZEJEK: I’ll give you my reasons. I might not believe that the sweater is out to get you, but I do believe that the act of making a sweater is a major commitment and a large undertaking. To make somebody else a sweater, you have to understand what they like, whether the yarn is suitable to their touch and to their sense of style. What colors do they like? And then after you’ve made all of these calculations, it comes down to sitting down and spending an enormous amount of your physical labor and your emotional labor on something that may or may not have that same value for that person. There’s a lot of potential heartbreak that you’re setting yourself up for. My husband has very simple taste, and he would love to have a light, simple, basic sweater with nothing too fancy going on.

DUBNER: And that’s just too boring for you. 

MIERZEJEK: It’s too boring. And if it’s light, then that means you’re using thinner yarn, and you’re knitting a heck of a lot more. So I’m looking at a six-month commitment for a very simple, plain sweater that I could actually just buy.

There are a number of rational explanations for the sweater curse. It could be the result of confirmation bias: once you believe in the sweater curse and you hear about a couple that broke up in the aftermath of a sweater being knitted, you might naturally attribute that breakup to the sweater. It could also be that breakups involving a hand-knit sweater are simply more dramatic and memorable than breakups in which a sweater is not involved. But the best explanation, as with the other curses we’ve been discussing today, may be basic math. As Mierzejek told us, a sweater takes a long time to knit by hand. Unless you’re knitting full-time, it could easily take a year. According to research by the sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, 60 percent of new couples don’t last a year. So if you decide to knit a sweater for your new boyfriend or girlfriend, there’s a pretty good chance your relationship will be done before the sweater is. So, yeah, maybe sweaters aren’t so curse-y after all. But this does raise the question of whether the intended recipient of a given piece of knitting is what knitters like to call “knit-worthy.”

MIERZEJEK: “Knit-worthy” is the idea that a person receiving a hand-knit gift needs to have a certain amount of both understanding and appreciation for what went into making that gift that makes it a step apart from a gift that you might have purchased. If I spend three or four weeks of my life doing the same repetitive motion, putting my labor and my emotions into something for you, and you like it and you’re just like, “Great, thanks, that’s nice” — that rings a little hollow for most makers. 

DUBNER: I don’t blame you. I have to say, one of my favorite possessions in all the world is something my wife knitted for me. I don’t know what it’s called — it’s a circular scarf that you pull over your head and it keeps your neck and throat nice and toasty. Like, I can’t wait for the cold weather. Because I basically put it on in November, and I leave it on until May. It’s a little wooly — I mean, it’s wool.

MIERZEJEK: It hugs you back.

DUBNER: It hugs you back. And it is such a thing. It’s almost like a pet. I know it’s not quite human, but it’s imbued with all this love and life. And I can’t imagine a gift that’s more alive in a way — other than, you know, the fact that it’s not alive. So what you’re saying really resonates with me. I hope I’m knit-worthy. 

MIERZEJEK: You sound very knit-worthy.

DUBNER: Phew!

MIERZEJEK: The fact that you treasure it and value it as something that is special due to the fact that the person who made it for you made it with love and made it with hard work, that makes you knit-worthy.

So Ash Mierzejek, like our other guests today, is a skeptic of curses. There is always a rational explanation. But still, rationality aside, I was curious whether anyone we spoke with harbors even the slightest superstitious belief. First up: the sports economist Stefan Szymanski. Does he have any superstitions?

SZYMANSKI: No, I don’t. And I don’t believe in magic. Harry Potter is great fun, but it’s a story. It’s not for real. 

DUBNER: Do you ever wish you were a little more inclined toward magic or superstition just because it’s interesting?

SZYMANSKI: I actually find data interesting, I find statistics interesting, I find spreadsheets interesting. So I get enough thrill out of looking at that without the need for the extraneous.  

LEESON: I do many, many things for pure entertainment value. 

And that’s Peter Leeson, the economist who believes that curses used to perform important governance functions.

LEESON: So that would be like the fortune cookie. Do I really believe that it’s actually telling my future? No. It’s tricky because I believe in God. I’m Catholic. And so, the obvious answer for me is: I’m Catholic, and therefore everything that I believe is superstitious, according to my definition. I’m not Catholic “for fun,” I guess. It doesn’t have entertainment value to me. But it does have aesthetic value. It does have these other sources of value that matter to me. 

VYSE: I think that I’m a fairly rational person.

And that’s Stuart Vyse, the psychologist who studies superstition.

VYSE: But I do remember a very bumpy airplane ride — and I do not do well with turbulence, so I was sort of white-knuckling it through this ride. And my friend turned to me and said, “Stuart, did you notice that we’re in the 13th row.” And he said, “And not only that, but look out the window, there’s a full moon out there.” And for a moment, I caught my breath and felt nervous. And then I realized, “Well, wait a second, if this plane goes down, all of the rows are going down, not just this row.” And so I got over it fairly quickly, but it shows that under the right circumstances, we’re all capable of some kind of superstitious belief. 

Are we all capable of some kind of superstitious belief? I didn’t think I was. But during the course of these conversations, I remembered… Many years ago, I was writing a book about my childhood football hero, Franco Harris, of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I had gone to visit Franco’s mother, Gina, who still lived in the same house where she raised Franco and all her other kids. She grew up in Pietrasanta, Italy, and she still had a lot of Old World ways. My own mother had recently died, and Gina reminded me of her: physically tiny, but strong and boisterous; fun to be with but also, you’d better do what they said. Gina Harris and I went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant near her house. It was a nice room, pink tablecloths, starched napkins. She ordered a glass of wine with lunch; I didn’t. Once the waiter poured her wine, I lifted my glass of water to clink her glass. She said, “No! Never with water! That is very bad luck!” I had never heard of a curse associated with raising a glass of water, but I never forgot it either. And now, I realize, I’ve passed it on to my entire family. If you ever come to dinner at our house and raise a glass of water for a “cheers” — you will get a talking-to. So I guess I am a believer, in some limited way.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. We had help this week from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg Rippin, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Read full Transcript

Sources

  • Stuart Vyse, retired psychology professor and author.
  • Stefan Szymanski, professor of economics at the University of Michigan.
  • Peter Leeson, professor of economics at George Mason University.
  • Ash Mierzejek, salesperson and knitting teacher at Knitty City yarn store.

Resources

Extras

Comments