Benedict Carey writes an engaging article in the Science section of today's New York Times (1/23/07) on why otherwise very rational people think that small ritual acts (always enter a room with the right foot) or signs (8 is my lucky number) improve or protect their prospects for an activity at hand.
Credit: New York Times
Cognitive psychologists believe "the appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior." Daniel Wegner at Harvard and collaborators have reported experiments showing how easy it is to induce magical thinking in well-educated young adults (young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache.)
An idea is that the brain has evolved to make snap judgments about causation, and will leap to conclusions well before logic can be applied. A relevant interpretation that connects all the dots can be preferred to a rational one. Wegner also suggests: "For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can be an antidote, a needed activator."