‘Acquiescence 13’ – Believing What We Do Not Believe

Inspiration in superstition

My conceptual strategy Acquiescence-13 was initially stimulated by Jane Risen’s psychological research into the concept of ‘acquiescence’ to superstitious beliefs and behaviours (Risen 2016:182). Risen’s research differs from traditional research on superstition and magical thinking that focuses on people’s cognitive shortcomings, and findings that superstitions are limited to individuals with mental deficits. In contrast, Risen’s research found that emotionally stable, rational, intelligent adults can be highly superstitious. She notes that even when stable adults recognise that their superstitious behaviour is irrational that they are unwilling to behave differently and terms this behaviour ‘acquiescence’.


I wanted to test Risen’s findings using a conceptual artistic framework and document my exploration in the production of a mail art / post card series. To do this I used a combination of constraints: random sampling, and sampling by number (13 acquaintances) and time (over three days) to enable the emergence of new knowledge (Stokes 2007:101).

Three questions

Specifically, I asked the 13 interviewees whether they:
• i: considered themselves to be superstitious and or;
• ii: held superstitious beliefs and or;
• iii: took any actions to prevent the impact of bad luck even though logically those beliefs may
not be rational?

Series of 13

I recorded the discussions of the exploration and created a series of 13 different ‘mail art’ (Martin 1984: para.28) / postcards that includes a summary of interviewees responses as quotations. Smith’s ‘chiller’ font, was chosen for its entertainment, engagement and legibility characteristics (Freefontsfamily n.d.:‘Chiller font’) to record the quotes that are accompanied with related superstitious imagery. The ‘mail art’ / postcards can be physically posted, digitally emailed separately or physically printed or emailed as a collection. The postcards if posted require handling and whether posted or digitally transmitted, invite further thought.

Generating conceptual content

My conceptual strategy leveraged Gillian Wearing’s (De Salvo 1999:6) Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992-93). It used input from the public to generate conceptual content that colluded in their depiction and assisted in creating and driving the conceptual narrative (De Salvo 1999:9) that sampled mass cultural representations – similar to Ruscha (Marino 2004:63).


In the performance of my strategy I drew on Wearing’s observation that her work involves examining passed-along truths in order to discover more about herself – through others (Wearing as cited in Montagu 2001:53). As a result of the exploration, I discovered that:

  1. There was a significant demonstration of ‘acquiescence’ to superstitious beliefs that was more common among older people and had been passed down through their culture without question.
  2. Although people held superstitious beliefs and performed behaviours to prevent bad luck, often they did not always know what their beliefs and behaviours specifically prevented and why they were performed yet were attached to performing these superstitious rituals anyway.
  3. Rather than ‘acquiescence’ to superstitious beliefs demonstrating irrationally, the interviewees appeared to be hedging their bets typically explaining:
    1. It’s probably not true but I’m going to continue to behave superstitiously (even though I know it’s irrational) in case it is true, and it really prevents misfortune from befalling me. After all there’s no point in testing the universe.

Annotated Bibliography

De Salvo D, Ferguson R and Slyce J (eds) (1999) ‘In conversation with Gillian Wearing’, Gillian Wearing,1st edn, Phaidon, London.
This interview with Gillian Wearing provides a detailed description of Wearing’s approach to conceptual art including the: implementation of conceptual constraints, process and discoveries. It specifically references her work Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992-93). In part, this interview informed, inspired and lent authority to the creation of my conceptual strategy.

Cooper J, (2019), The world exists to be put on a postcard, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. This book provides a comprehensive overview of mail art / postcards as a medium for artists and a discrete work of art in its own right. He examines the way specific artists used postcards purposes as a vehicle for their ideas and practices. He also documents artistic use of the form of postcards from its inception in the Fluxus and conceptualist movements in the 1960s to the present day that provides a medium for social commentary.

Marino M (2004), ‘Almost not photography’, in Corris M (ed) Conceptual art: theory, myth, and practice, Michael Corris, Cambridge University Press, New York.
This chapter provides a useful overview of Ruscha’s approach to the creation of conceptual art. The chapter includes direct quotes from a variety of artists and critics including Ruscha on his sampling of ‘mass cultural systems of representation’ (2004:63) to create juxtaposition that contributed to the impact of his work. The reference is valuable in illustrating how using cultural representations enables deep explorations via conceptual art.

Montagu J (2001) Gillian Wearing CBE ‘I’m desperate’ 1992-3, [photograph], Tate Modern Online, accessed 30 May 2021.
This web document provides a useful overview of Wearing’s conceptual work up to 2001. It includes Wearing’s direct quotes and observations on the process and impact of her conceptual art. The summary was helpful in providing additional detail on how Wearing’s interactions with conceptual art participants enabled and strengthened the alignment of Wearing’s observations. This document helped my understand a possible alignment between Wearing’s work and Risen’s research on ‘acquiescence’ (2016:202).

Martin H (February 1984) ‘Can an eyelash last forever? Interview with Ray Johnson’, (Kiss-Pál K trans), Lotta Poetica, accessed 29 May2022.
This translated online interview between two key art practitioners Henry Martin and Ray Johnson provides useful historic background on who coined the term ‘mail-art’. It also provides an outline of the Fluxus Movement and New York Correspondence School’s use and popularisation of mail art practice. This interview provided useful additional information on the practice of ‘mail art’ that complimented the information in the British Museum’s blog by Ramkalawon J (7 May 2019) ‘The World Exists To Be Put On A Postcard’. Ramkalawon’s blog (2019) noted that in some cases ‘mail art’ represented the only record of an artist’s installation or performance piece. In combination this information revealed that mail art / postcards would be an appropriate medium in which to depict the outcomes of my conceptual strategy.

Risen JL (2016) ‘Believing what we do not believe: acquiescence to superstitious beliefs and other powerful intuitions’, Psychological Review, 123 (2):182–207, https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Frev000001
This article summarizes Risen’s psychological research into the concept acquiescence to superstitious beliefs and behaviours. It is a key document that underpins my exploration of my conceptual strategy about the extent to which well-educated mature adults hold superstitions beliefs and behave in ways that maintain their beliefs – even when they understand these beliefs are irrational. This article in part inspired my conceptual strategy.

Stokes P (2007), ‘Using constraints to generate and sustain novelty’, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, 1(2):107-113, doi:10.1037/1931-3896.1.2.107
This journal article scientifically validates the use of constraints in generating innovative responses to ill defined problems. The ‘constraint model of novelty’ referenced is clearly explained and shows its application is an empirically valid method when seeking new information from what is known. This reference provides an engaging further validation from an alternate discipline on the benefits of the use of constraints to artistically explore areas of interest. It strengthened my use of constraints in exploring the paradoxical nature of acquiescence to superstitious beliefs and behaviours (Risen 2016:202).

Wearing G (1992-93) Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say [photographic series], Tate Modern Online, accessed 30 May 2021.
Displays five key artworks (photographs) that form part of Wearing’s series Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say purchased by the Tate Modern and uploaded to their visual database. The images are a key resource, include measurements and details of Wearing’s photographs. They also visually depict Wearing’s discussion of her conceptual art including its constraints and processes and her photographs that are often referenced by her peers and critics.

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