In the summer of 1948 the behavioural psychologist BF Skinner, already a maverick in his field, appeared to be for the birds. Skinner had come to attention for demonstrating a surprising degree of agency in laboratory animals: he trained rats to pull levers and push buttons, taught pigeons to play ping-pong, and coached his children’s kittens to play the piano. But for a new experiment he left a group of starving pigeons entirely helpless.
Slimmed down to 75 per cent of their usual weight and confined to a box that delivered food pellets at precise intervals, the pigeons became Skinner’s most famous experiment. Initially each bird sat in the box passively, but after a few minutes most began to behave idiosyncratically. One pigeon would turn three times anticlockwise before the pellet dropped. Another would thrust its head into a corner of the box. A few more bobbed or swayed their heads in what became a distinctive ritual. Left powerless, unable to fathom the reason for the feeding and with no influence on the outcome, three out of four of Skinner’s pigeons had become superstitious.
Are humans very different? Superstition is either a learned trait, something picked up from family or absorbed as part of a culture, or it’s an acquired habit. Most of us recognise that superstition is anathema to rational thinking – then avoid walking beneath ladders. Superstitions are more entrenched among tribes, most conspicuously sportspeople and artists.
The meeting point of the professional sportsperson and the professional artist is in mutual uncertainty. No footballer, however gifted or trained, can be assured of the outcome of a game. No performer, however talented or rehearsed, knows if the show will be good. Into that vacuum of control flood whole systems of ritual. The baseball player Wade Boggs had a five-hour pregame ritual of obsessive detail and ate nothing but chicken for 20 years. (He published a book of recipes called Fowl Tips.) Björn Borg's entire family maintained a complicated routine of pregame spitting; the tennis star himself never shaved once a tournament had started.
Theatre is about as idiosyncratic. I know a producer who only ever opens a show on a Tuesday (inspired, apparently, by the punchline of a favourite joke). Another must buy something new to wear with each show that opens. I know a director who can never attend the opening night. I know an actor who, after a good performance, carefully replicates everything that happened earlier that day.
These are the individual variations on a culture already saturated with superstition. The quaintest stage-world tradition is to never utter the word “Macbeth” in a theatre, as this has long been associated with courting disaster. Its remedy – having the utterer leave the building, turn three times anticlockwise, swearing, sometimes spitting, then knock to be allowed back in – might strain the patience of an emaciated pigeon.
Other theatre superstitions: don’t whistle backstage (it was a safety hazard when stagehands were moonlighting sailors who whistled to communicate); never turn off the ghost light (a permanent light in an empty theatre with otherworldly – and health-and-safety – benefits); and never destroy the envelope of a first-night telegram.
Failure to observe any of these rules is almost as unlucky as to wish anyone "good luck". (Mel Brooks's musical The Producers, which has been at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this week, has a whole routine dedicated to self-sabotage over the song You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night. It includes ladders, cracked mirrors, a black cat and a broken leg.)
Why anyone says “Break a leg” is a matter of long conjecture, traced back variously to Shakespeare (meaning “bend a leg”, or take a bow) and to the trenches of the first World War (meaning come home wounded rather than dead). Conversely, a bad dress rehearsal is considered good luck, and to see a ghost is especially good luck – nearly every theatre claims to have one.
Why should such rituals persist in a time of increasingly rigorous professionalism, canny marketing data and technological sophistication? The answer, surprisingly, is that they work. Good-luck superstitions – knocking on wood, keeping lucky items – were found to have psychological benefits in a study by Richard Wiseman and Caroline Watt. A more recent pleasing study by Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler, in which participants proved better at throwing golf balls into a cup when they were told their ball was lucky, showed that a belief in luck improves people's performance of a skilled activity. (Such studies moved Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, to balance his advocacy of rationalism with an appreciation for some magical thinking.)
The logical interpretation is that superstition has a placebo effect: the cause may be bogus, but the result is real. So bolstered, theatre artists or sport fans might similarly forgo their rituals, whistle a happy Macbeth, issue a warm good luck, step on a crack or two. But why tempt fate?