On Superstition: Magpies and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies


In many parts of the world people are superstitious about the magpie as a bringer of ill-omen or a predictor of fortune. Yeats (1922) refers to superstitions including the magpie as follows: 
In spite of hosts of deniers, and asserters, and wise-men, and professors, the majority still are adverse to sitting down to dine thirteen at a table, or being helped to salt, or walking under a ladder, of seeing a single magpie flirting his chequered tale.
Growing up with traditional superstitions such as these, it can be hard to shake off the instinct that makes us avoid a ladder or throw spilt salt over a shoulder or avoid the room or house number 13. This is the same habit of thought which brings to mind the following rhyme when we see a magpie:
One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a girl
Four for a boy
Five for silver
Six for Gold
Seven for a secret
Never to be told
The Magpie Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Walking, to cool down after a run, I saw a magpie. I automatically looked around to try and find another, thinking  'One for sorrow, two for joy...' Nothing. I immediately berated my self for looking for the second magpie and then suddenly twisted my ankle and fell to the ground.

To the superstitious this would be proof of the 'One for sorrow' premonition.

To others this proves that if you are too busy looking for a magpie, to look where you are going, you are more likely to trip over an uneven pavement stone, twist your ankle and fall to the ground.

This is Merton's 'self-fulfilling prophecy' at work here (1948). As he put it, 'definitions of a situation (prophecies or predictions) become an integral part of the situation and thus affect subsequent development' (p.195).
'The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true' (Ibid).
So yes one magpie was unlucky for me - but only because I went looking for the second.

Merton, R. K. (1948) 'The Self Fulfilling Prophecy', The Antioch Review, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer, 1948), p. 193-210
Yeats, W. B. (1922) Modern English Essays, p.192-193

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