Knocking on Wood and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity


Informant (L) is studying at UC Berkeley and has lived in the US his whole life.

L: Well, I’m a big believer in knocking on wood.

I: Is there a reason you have a whole knocking on wood belief?

L: Yeah, because like, let’s say hypothetically, it’s not real. But if there’s a chance it’s real, wouldn’t you rather absolve yourself from spiritual anguish? It’s the same as like being agnostic, and your whatever beliefs on religion, it’s like if there’s a chance it’s real, you might as well. So like are you familiar with Einstein’s theory of relativity? When you like you say something, you kinda put it out to the universe, so if you put it out into the universe, “Oh, well I hope I don’t get into a car crash” then it’s out in the universe, so like you influence yourself subliminally to get into a car crash and you can undo that by knocking on wood three times. Or if there’s no wood available, you can do it on your head.

I: On your head?

L: Yeah, ‘cus it’s your head, your noggin. It’s like made out of wood, it’s funny.


I asked my informant about any beliefs or superstitions he had over a phone call. This was the first one he gave, so I asked for further elaboration. 


Knocking on wood is perhaps one of the most common pieces of Western folklore in modern times. I found my informant’s sincere belief (which was further confirmed by his partner) in such a custom interesting, as my previous experiences with this piece of folklore have mostly been done in a joking manner. My informant rationalizes this Law of Contact with a scientific theory as support, which demonstrates the effect of empirical evidence on a belief in a custom. He argues that the physical act of touching something (either wood or one’s head) can undo an action, which is also an example of a conversion superstition. Knocking on wood undos the subliminal influence of what’s been put “out in the universe”, as my informant notes. The immense popularity of knocking on wood is a main factor as to why it still persists to this day, and because of how easy it is to do, people may do it as an extra safety precaution.