Telling Yourself Superstitious Tales

I used to belong to a ski club that traveled often to the breathtaking mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. I was friends with a group of New York City firefighters who also belonged to the club. Once, instead of taking a bus, I decided to take my car and split the driving with a couple of these men.

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I’m scrupulous about wearing seat belts and making sure all my passengers do too. In the United States, it’s estimated that seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about half. They saved 12,802 lives in 2014 (the last year I could find statistics for.)

But these firefighters refused to put on a seat belt.

I was baffled. I’d once heard a rescue worker say he feared that his car might plunge off a bridge into water. “If I’m wearing a seat belt,” he explained, “I might not be able to get out of the car in time. The belt might get stuck and I’d be trapped.”

The reality, though, is that almost all deaths occur when a person is thrown from their car during the crash. If this man actually did plunge off a bridge (an unusual occurrence) his seat belt would prevent him from hitting his head and getting knocked unconscious. Even people in violent car rollovers frequently walk away unharmed because of seat belts.

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I gave this information to these firefighters, all the time wondering why they didn’t know this already. They were, after all, in the rescue business.

“I’m not afraid of getting trapped in the car,” they told me.

“Then what is it?”

Here was their startling response: “I don’t wear a seat belt because when your number’s up, your number’s up, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I was speechless. It’s true that you could do everything right in life and still die. But why couldn’t they see that life is a game of increasing your odds of survival?

It reminded me of people who tell me they smoke because, “My grandfather smoked his whole life and lived to 100. And the neighbor next door was a runner and health nut, and he had a heart attack at the age of 36.”

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People make up stories to comfort themselves or to enable them to continue risky behavior.

But what did the firefighters get out of not wearing seat belts? They were more comfortable in the car? Not really. They were stubborn, or stupid? No.

When I thought about it, I realized it was a clear case of magical thinking.

These men were were protecting themselves. Here’s how:

If you want to live a long time, it’s a good idea to run away from fires and not into the center of a burning building.

But it’s the job of a firefighter to run towards danger, not away from it. How do you override the natural fear that keeps everyone else away from the flames?

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Here’s how: tell yourself a story that defends you from that fear.

“It’s out of my control. I trust that when it’s my time to die, that’s what will happen. Most of the time, I’ll be fine, no matter what I do.”

This thought gave them the courage to risk their lives over and over.

Still, I wished they’d wear seat belts.

Have you ever been baffled by the magical thinking of others?

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7 thoughts on “Telling Yourself Superstitious Tales

  1. I’m pretty sure I have magical thinking in certain areas. I think I’m a bit that way in terms of sunscreen. I know I should cover up and put sunscreen on but there’s this silly thought that for so many years I haven’t done that it might already have caused damage that will become evident later, so no point in covering up now when the damage might have already been done. Ridiculous, I know. Or perhaps I think if nothing’s been damaged so far, then I can keep going the way I’ve been going. So, yep, I know that is silly, and yet when it comes to my actions, I still rarely put sunscreen on. Argh!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We all succumb to magical thinking. However, it’s good for us to recognize when we’re doing it and remind ourselves to think more rationally. The sun damages skin every time it touches it. My 90 year old mother taught me that before sunscreen was invented. But she always covered up with hats and clothing. Her skin looks like that of someone 40 years younger. You’re still young, Juni. Keep your beautiful skin for years to come by protecting it now.

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  2. Similar to June’s topic on why people are not using sunscreen, I think that many people are in denial and that many think that it will not happen to them.
    About the fire fighters, with all due respect,….the profession attracts a certain personality, not dissimilar to characteristics you see in over-confident teenagers.
    Magical thinking: the multivitamin industry…the cold medicines, the antidepressants, etc….a multi billion dollar industry that provides people false hope to live longer and healthier and skinnier. There is NO scientific evidence for the claims…and still, when my family doctor recommended omega 3 and vitamin E, I bought it. I just watched “the fifth estate” on t.v…there is no evidence….
    Probem 1: what is on the label is often not in the bottle.
    Problem 2: the claims are not researched and when they are they come out as false…
    and still…did I throw out my multivitamins?
    Magical thinking….

    Thank you for the topic…it is a good one 🙂 I hope you get many responses!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Elisabeth! I have a client who was treated with cupping (just like the Olympic swimmers) when it is nothing more than a placebo. However, placebos work, so I guess there’s a place for them. But shortening your life, the way Steve Jobs did by being treated with ineffective alternative cures, is a shame. And not wearing seat belts is even worse.

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  3. Maybe that’s what keeps people texting while driving. I know some groups don’t like to enforce laws about these things, but people who fail to protect themselves not only pose a risk to the rest of us; they also become our financial liability.

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  4. Are myth and folklore parts of the magical thinking, Candy?

    I think it is just part of our culture. Granted it, not all of them are good and most of them are not true other than to serve a specific purpose. It is the tales that help people cope, endure, or survive through this thing call life.

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