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Men may gamble more money after a positive fortunetelling — even when they don’t believe it

A new study highlights a curious aspect of human behavior: People tend to follow superstitions whether they claim to believe in them or not.
A craps dealer prepares stacks of chips at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip on June 4, 2020.
A craps dealer prepares stacks of chips at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip on June 4, 2020.David Becker / Getty Images file

Men who receive a positive foretelling of their future are more likely to gamble greater sums of money even when they don’t believe in fortunetelling, according to a new study. But there seems to be no such reaction among women.

The research highlights a curious aspect of human behavior: People tend to follow superstitions whether they profess to believe in them or not.

Psychologists think this might be because they want to maintain an illusion of control, which the superstition gives them, or that they want to impose a sense of order as a psychological defense to random events, which looks the same to an observer as adherence to superstition.

The study suggests seemingly irrational superstitions can affect decision-making — even relatively important financial decisions that many people expect would be governed by hard-headed analysis, said psychologist Xiaoyue Tan, a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

“Superstition suggesting that good luck is ahead may increase men’s expectations of ‘beating the odds,’ decrease anxiety, provide a justification for a risky choice, and consequently increase men’s risk-taking behaviors,” she said in an email.

Tan is the lead author of the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One that reported the findings.

The researchers used a smartphone fortunetelling app — supposedly based on things like a user’s birthdate and favorite color, but in fact was purely random — to conduct experiments with more than 600 participants.

They found that men who received a positive fortune said in subsequent questions — after they’d completed another task to “distract” them from the fortunetelling stage of the app — that they were more inclined to take financial risks and gamble more heavily, even though most of them claimed not to believe in fortunetelling.

Tan said she hopes to pursue further research to see if the findings hold true when actual money is at stake.

The researchers saw no signs of such a pronounced link among women. Tan thinks this is probably because the experiment specifically tested the likelihood of taking financial risks, which previous research has shown men are more likely to do.

“In general, men are more aligned to take risks in the financial domain than women,” she said in an email, perhaps to gain resources, social status or high-quality mates.

But the researchers did not expect to see such a strong correlation between sexes: “Men were significantly affected by positive fortune telling, whereas women were not,” she said.

They also found that men in the experiments were more likely than women to say they strongly believed in superstition, “and these stronger superstitious beliefs were associated with greater financial risk taking,” Tan said.

The psychologist and writer Stuart Vyse, the author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition” and formerly a professor at Connecticut College in New London, explained that people are more likely to behave superstitiously even when they claim not to believe in superstitions.

Whether such nonbelievers obeyed superstitions to gain an illusion of control or in an attempt to impose order on random events depended mainly on the types of superstitions involved and the tasks they were performing, Vyse, who was not involved with the study, said.

“People in these situations often say, ‘I know this is silly, but I will just feel better if I follow this superstition anyway,’” he said. “So they are sort of in two minds about it.”

He also noted that fortunetelling is somewhat different than some other types of superstition because it occurs before the event it supposedly foretells — the gambling, in this case — whereas other superstitions are often applied at the same time as the events they supposedly influence, like throwing spilled salt over your shoulder.

Tan acknowledged this is a weakness in the study that can be resolved with further experiments. 

“Fortune telling is just one form of superstition,” she said. “It cannot be concluded with confidence whether the findings will replicate for other forms of superstition.”

Vyse added that he wasn’t so surprised that men showed a greater tendency than women to gamble more after they’d received a positive fortunetelling, because research has shown that men are greater risk-takers in general, and he suspects a different result might be seen when the final task of such an experiment is something more characteristic of women.

“I think more research needs to be done to know how powerful or influential this behavior is,” he said. He was also impressed with the approach of using a smartphone app to investigate psychological behavior: “I think it’s clever, a new sort of thing.”