Superstitions: Why you believe

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(CBS News) A menacing ladder, a black cat. Perhaps I'd better knock wood before proceeding. No need to apologize if the approach of Halloween makes you extra superstitious. Many successful people harbor superstitions aplenty - and serious scientists find superstition a rich field of study. Our Cover Story is reported by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":

Casey Daigle pitched in the major leagues; his wife, Jenny Finch, won Olympic medals in softball. Their proud careers were built on talent, and (although they don't like to admit it) a little superstition, some of it pretty strange . . .

Before each game Casey would put his socks on a certain way. "There was months, there was weeks that I wouldn't shave," he said, "as bad as it itches, and I mean you're in the summer playing in Arizona. It's 115 degrees and you got a beard! But you gotta suck it up, that's part of it."

"I would always put my bat bag in the same spot, my glove in the same spot, my helmet," said Jennie. "When it came down to it, I had two favorite sports bras. I wanted that same sports bra for the game."

Casey said that if he were the home team, "I would go to the bathroom in the fifth inning. If we were the away team, then I would go to the bathroom in the sixth inning. Even if you didn't have to go to the bathroom, you went to the bathroom."

in baseball such routines are routine. Legend Wade Boggs ate chicken before each game. Pitcher Turk Wendell brushed his teeth between innings. And in the classic movie "Bull Durham," one player wore a garter under his uniform.

Fans, too, have countless compulsions; a new beer commercial pokes fun at a few.

But Casey Daigle says his routines were no laughing matter.

"There's been times that you forget something or you don't do something. And it's sad to say but it's panic mode. It's horrible, yeah, it's bad. I mean, thinking about it, it's absolutely ridiculous, but when you're in the moment, I mean, it's not ridiculous at all. It's life or death."

Count yourself lucky if you're NOT superstitious. Connecticut College psychologist Stuart Vyse says most people ARE. In a world where we prize science, it may not be something to be proud of.

What is superstition? "A belief or an action that is inconsistent with science," said Vyse. "And it needs to be aimed at bringing about good luck, or avoiding bad luck."

Vyse says only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution. And in superstition? "Over half of Americans have some kind of superstition that they believe in," he said.

"So more Americans have some specific superstition than believe in evolution?" asked Spencer.

"That's right, that's right. That would be true. And that's not a good thing."

A new CBS News poll for "Sunday Morning" finds more than half of all Americans (51 percent) knock on wood to avoid bad luck; 16 percent won't open umbrellas indoors; 13 percent carry a good luck charm; and one in ten (10 percent) avoids black cats.

In Halloween, we even have a holiday that CELEBRATES superstitions - and nowhere are they celebrated more than at New York City's Blood Manor Haunted House, where you're surrounded by ferocious black cats and broken mirrors. Bring ALL your lucky rabbit's feet!

"Just think of Halloween as an advertisement for superstitions," said Cornell University psychology professor Tom Gilovich.

And like any good advertisement, superstitions have the power to overcome your rational brain, said Gilovich.

"One of the interesting things about superstitions is their seemingly arbitrary nature," he said. "Like, why 13? Why black cats? Why ladders? Don't walk under that ladder! It has no rational bearing. But now you feel like you're tempting fate and the outcome, a bad outcome, that could befall you is going to be worse because you deliberately did something that people tell you you shouldn't do."

"And is the outcome likely to be worse?" asked Spencer.

"No! Absolutely not," laughed Gilovich.

But here's what's really scary: Gilovich says our brains are wired to believe this nonsense - to find cause and effect where there is none.