Story: I Love This Example of Thinking About Luck.

This week’s video story:  I love this example of superstitious thinking.


You can read about the disputed versions of this study on Wikiquote. As I said, I’m not vouching for the accuracy of this particular version of the story–in this context, it’s not particularly important how factual this story is, because the (perhaps apocryphal) exchange between the two men captures something very true about the way we think about luck.

How about you? Do you have any lucky objects or rituals that you follow–even if you don’t really believe in them?

Can’t see the video? Click here. If you want to read more about along these lines, check out this post.

Find the archives of videos here.  More than 1.6 MILLION views. Don’t forget to subscribe!

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • Janet


    I love this story. Its hedging your bets. There is a religious equivalent story just like this about God or perhaps heaven that is on the tip of my tongue….


    • peninith1

      Occam’s Razor. The decision to believe in God because after all there might really be a God

      • Janet

        Yes, thank you, that is it!


      • No, no. Occam’s Razor is the principle that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely true.

        You’re thinking of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager is the principle that nothing is lost by believing in God, but a great deal might be lost by rejecting him, if he does in fact exist!

        I never though how much “Occam’s Razor” and “Pascal’s Wager” sound alike, but they kinda do!

        • peninith1

          Oh gosh, you are right. I learned about both of them in the same English Lit class 40 years ago. They stuck but obviously only SORT OF. Thanks for the correction!

  • mapgirl

    Although I’m not a believer, I still light a candle when I visit a church, and have a bottle of holy water in the house – definitely far more about superstition than faith.

  • peninith1

    I think you have to be as tough-minded as, say, Christopher Hitchens to refuse under any and all circumstances to be touched by superstitious thoughts and behavior. I observe of myself that I tend to be more inclined to consult the superstitious side of my mind when I am more anxious about something or someone.
    As for praying ‘help!’ when in trouble, or uttering ‘thank goodness’ when spared, I would guess that even most of the agnostic or purportedly atheistic among us do that at times.
    Gratitude is always good. Asking for help is always ok. Wishing that we could ‘know’ or ‘control’ is a human, if hopeless, wish.
    All I know is that as my security in myself progresses, my ‘superstitious’ behavior decreases, but my gratitude and need for help do not.

  • Selena

    Ms. Rubin, can you help me find a quote that I remember reading on your website a long time ago? (I’ve been searching for a while, but haven’t been able to find it.) It relates to the theme of “People do best what comes naturally.” The general message of the quote was that if anything a person does is to be worthwhile, it must come naturally, spontaneously, and from within.

    Thank You Very Much!

  • TJ

    I’m not superstitious per se, but to prevent a “bad thing” happening after it is spoken aloud, I feel the need to knock on wood. It’s something about not tempting the fates by speaking that thing aloud. Crazy.

  • Patti

    I am a believer in Feng Shui, the bagua map and placement of objects. Though I do not believe in orientation. I live in the Southern Hemisphere and its all back to front for me.

    I have a Saint Christopher’s medal on my key chain, even though I’m not Catholic. It keeps me safe!

    I am an eclectic superstitious person!

  • Cathy

    My family started a superstition/habit/ritual years ago…when we board a plane, we pat the outside and say “good plane”. We haven’t crashed yet! Of course, once I forgot to pat it and was a nervous wreck the entire flight! 🙂

  • Millita

    My supertitious thinking is that if I say something out loud that I do not want to happen, it will happen. Like I will not tell my husband that I am afraid that our business proposal will not be accepted. I will not say it to avoid “provoking” it to happen, although I know I have no control over that decision.

  • Jeanne

    I tend to fear my superstitious tendencies and keep an eye out for them. I know that it’s pretty easy to get into patterns or rituals (like “Good Plane) and then be fearful when I forget to do them. I don’t read horoscopes. I try to avoid any ritualistic behavior that could get a little superstitious or OCD around the edges. Not so much because I don’t believe in them, but because I all too easily could. I had a friend who was always talking about planets being in retrograde. Can’t even start down that path.

  • Sadye

    Sort of. When I run a race, I like to wear a certain outfit, which I call the “lucky” outfit but is really just the combination of the shirts/shorts/headband/socks I like best all at once. All of my gear feels fine, but who’s to say I wouldn’t blame a sudden change for a bad showing?

  • Kara Zor-El

    It’s bad luck to be superstitious. 🙂

  • No, I don’t have any superstitions because I don’t believe in luck. Even a roll of the dice isn’t governed by luck, but by a couple basic mechanical principles and a thousand bits of data. What we call “luck” really means “something we don’t understand” because either the principles or the data, or both, are obscure to us. They are obscure to us either because we haven’t yet plumbed them, or because they are too vast to manage.

    In life, there are only mechanics and choice, laws and will – but nothing is random. If anything is truly random, then everything touched by the random thing would gain an element of randomness, that is to say, become random itself. A random would would be unintelligible. We could never ask, “Why?” because the answer would always have to be “Luck.”

    A materialist cannot logically believe in choice and will, but he certainly cannot believe in luck, either. A Christian – or anybody who believes that an immaterial, spiritual order exists and is real, and not merely an emotional way of speaking – can speak not only of mechanics and laws, but also of choice and free decisions.

    But luck? No, “luck” is what only a god of the gaps.

    My two cents, anyway.

  • Haha yes I read that story in a book once and re-tell it often. It is so true! I am personally very superstitious. I’ve got my rituals and items that I believe in, even though my head claims to know better. Whatever works!

  • I love your stories!!!

    • gretchenrubin


  • Jeanne

    Jesus, and other great teachers, have repeatedly said that it is done unto us as we believe. Physicists have discovered that we live in a consciousness created universe, so anything that helps us believe that the things we want will happen is a powerful mental placebo. The story that comes to mind to me about this is Dumbo and his magic feather. What happens if we believe in the feather and then lose the feather? We need to believe that whatever magic works for us is within us and never subject to loss. Not “out there.” Otherwise, there will be fear of loss associated with it.

  • Pingback: Who Knew? Lucky Charms Actually Work. « Positively Positive()