The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking goes on sale today. By (spooky!) coincidence, today is also the fourth anniversary of the incident that opens the book—an event asserting America’s belief in voodoo. On April 12, 2008, two men pulled a shirt out of a hole in the ground and lifted it before a mass of media. Somehow this shirt, and this hole, were kind of a big deal.
The shirt was a baseball jersey with the name and number of David Ortiz, a star player for the Boston Red Sox. The hole was a freshly jack-hammered void in the concrete of the New York Yankees’ expensive new stadium. In 2007 a mischievous construction worker had buried it there, and word had just got out. The Yankees, and their fans, wanted it gone.
On one level, their anxiety makes no sense. A shirt cannot bring down a stadium. That’s conscious, rational thought talking. On another level, their anxiety makes perfect sense. The team could not risk being cursed by Ortiz, a player who helped break the Curse of the Bambino. That’s the voice of magical thinking.
But what cognitive mechanisms would lead people to believe that a shirt representing a player could channel his essence? What’s the psychology behind voodoo?
One factor is that we’re not perfect at what’s called “appearance-reality distinction.” Babies try to grasp objects in photographs, and even adults scream when Freddie Krueger pops up on the big screen. Part of us doesn’t believe what we’re seeing isn’t real. This is why in one study people started to sweat when asked to cut up a mere photograph of a cherished childhood possession.
But an Ortiz jersey would be hard to mistake for the real Ortiz, so what’s the deal? It turns out that even symbols that represent reality abstractly can produce some of the experience in the brain of encountering reality directly. For instance, just reading the words lick, pick, and kick activates parts of the motor cortex controlling the tongue, fingers, and legs, respectively. Words such as mint, gunpowder, and fart activate the primary olfactory cortex. And reading words for musical instruments activates parts of the cortex responsible for auditory perception.
Obviously we don’t literally feel, smell, or hear these written words, but they trigger internal simulations of what they represent. To a certain small degree they generate real experiences, as if a mint leaf or a violin were in our presence. This may be why we call certain words “dirty words”—as if they themselves were filthy. And it may be why we treat a jersey representing Ortiz as having something of Ortiz in it—the association is strong enough that the brain doesn’t fully grasp the difference. (I know, that seems weird, but so is the behavior we’re trying to explain.)
Now, even if the actual David Ortiz were buried in Yankee Stadium, how would that curse it? Well, as I explain in chapter 1, we believe in essences that can be transmitted trough contact or emanated like energy. So if the essence of Ortiz is suffused throughout the stadium, perhaps, we believe, its aura could affect events on the field.
In any case, the Ortiz jersey was excavated, and the Yankees won their World Series in 2009. But… in chapter 2, I reveal another curse allegedly placed on the Yankees by Gino Castignoli, the worker who buried the Ortiz jersey. Castignoli claims also to have worked on Derek Jeter’s apartment in Trump World Tower—and to have hidden some surprises in there. This would have been in early 2001, and you may recall that after winning the Series in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, New York had an eight-year dry spell. Compared to the Ortiz curse, Castignoli told me, the Jeter jinx “actually worked longer.”