Think about knocking on wood or throwing salt over your shoulder. Rituals such as these, involving movements that “push away” from the body, may make us feel better because we have built up an association between pushing actions and avoiding harm or danger, according to psychologists at the University of Chicago.
Jane L. Risen, PhD, associate professor of behavioral science, and A. David Nussbaum, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of behavioral science, both at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wrote in the New York Times, “People’s beliefs are often influenced by bodily feelings and movements. For example, other research shows that people tend to agree with the same arguments more when they hear them while they are nodding their head up and down (as if they were saying ‘yes’) rather than shaking it from side to side (as if they were saying ‘no’).”
Risen and other researchers conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of physical “avoidant” actions. “Our findings suggest that not all actions to undo a jinx are equally effective,” said Risen in a University of Chicago press release. “Instead, we find that avoidant actions that exert force away from one’s representation of self are especially effective for reducing the anticipated negative consequences following a jinx. [These avoidant actions seem] to create the sense that the bad luck is being pushed away.”
Mind-body movement instructors who lead relaxation exercises may want to apply this research. For example, cues that encourage students to “release tension from your neck and shoulders and shake it out of your arms and hands” or to “visualize stress and tension and all that you no longer need leaving you with each exhalation” allow participants to engage in actions that push negative feelings away from their bodies.
The study is available in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (2013; doi: 10.1037/a0034023).