Risen & Gilovich on tempting fate

Posted on August 26, 2009


This is the first of what likely to be a series of articles on the work done by Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich on ‘tempting fate’.

A while ago I mentioned on this blog the research done by Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff on the contagion heuristic. The research plays a major role in my own work as it is a very good example of what can be done to connect a particular heuristic to the kind of superstition that is causes. Together with Christophe Heintz, I have recently been looking at an example of similar research done by Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich on tempting fate. We are thinking of writing a commentary on their work, with Christophe bringing to it his understanding of the interaction between cognitive and cultural factors and with me helping to relate it to other work on superstition. At this point we are at the stage of trying to understand the work R&G have done, working out what we like about it and what we find questionable, and relating the various points to our existing knowledge. Already, I can see that working with Christophe on this research has been very beneficial for my understanding of superstition in general.

Thus far, R&G have published two papers that deal directly with the issue of tempting fate, both in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (at least two more are in the works). The first is “Another look at why people are reluctant to exchange lottery tickets” and the second is “Why people are reluctant to tempt fate”.

The basic mechanism that R&G think is responsible for the phenomenon of tempting fate is that such actions bring to mind the potential negative outcomes which, due to the human bias to concentrate upon negative outcomes, come to be subsequently focussed upon and, having been focussed upon , come to seem more likely due to increased accessibility and its use as a measure of likelihood by the availability heuristic.