Ray Allen’s pregame routine never changes. A nap from 11:30am to 1:00pm, chicken and white rice for lunch at 2:30, a stretch in the gym at 3:45, a quick head shave, then practice shots at 4:30. The same amount of shots must be made from the same spots every day – the baselines and elbows of the court, ending with the top of the key. Similar examples of peculiar rituals and regimented routines in athletics abound. Jason Giambi would wear a golden thong if he found himself in a slump at the plate, and Moises Alou, concerned about losing his dexterous touch with the bat, would frequently urinate on his hands. This type of superstitious behavior can veer from the eccentric to the pathological, and though many coaches, teammates and fans snicker and shake their heads, a new study headed by Lysann Damisch at the University of Cologne and recently published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that we should all stop smirking and start rubbing our rabbit’s foot.
When it comes to superstitions, social scientists have generally agreed on one thing: they are fundamentally irrational. “Magical thinking” (as it has been called) is defined as the belief that an object, action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events can influence its outcome. In other words, stepping on a crack cannot, given what we know about the principles of causal relations, have any direct effect on the probability of your mother breaking her back. Those who live in fear of such a tragedy are engaging in magical thought and behaving irrationally.
Yet in their study, Damisch and colleagues challenge the conclusion that superstitious thoughts bear no causal influence on future outcomes. Of course, they were not hypothesizing that the trillions of tiny cracks upon which we tread every day are imbued with some sort of sinister spine-crushing malevolence. Instead, they were interested in the types of superstitions that people think bring them good luck. The lucky hats, the favorite socks, the ritualized warmup routines, the childhood blankies. Can belief in such charms actually have an influence over one’s ability to, say, perform better on a test or in an athletic competition? In other words, is Ray Allen’s performance on the basketball court in some ways dependent on eating chicken and rice at exactly 2:30? Did Jason Giambi’s golden thong actually have a hand in stopping a hitless streak?
To initially test this possibility experimenters brought participants into the lab and told them that they would be doing a little golfing. They were to see how many of 10 putts they could make from the same location. The manipulation was simply this: when experimenters handed the golf ball to the participant they either mentioned that the ball “has turned out to be a lucky ball” in previous trials, or that the ball was simply the one “everyone had used so far”. Remarkably, the mere suggestion that the ball was lucky significantly influenced performance, causing participants to make almost two more putts on average.
Why? Surely it couldn’t be that the same golf ball becomes lucky at the experimenter’s suggestion – there must be an explanation grounded in the psychological influence that belief in lucky charms has on the superstitious. In a follow-up experiment the researchers hypothesized that this kind of magical thinking can actually increase participants’ confidence in their own capabilities. That is, believing in lucky charms would increase participants’ “self-efficacy,” and it is this feeling of “I can do this,” not any magical properties of the object itself, that predict success. To test this, they had participants bring in their own lucky charms from home and assigned them to either a condition where they would be performing a task in the presence of their charm, or a condition where the experimenter removes the charm from the room before the task. Participants rated their perceived level of self-efficacy and then completed a memory task that was essentially a variant of the game Concentration.
And, indeed, the participants who were in the presence of their charm performed better on the memory task and reported increased self-efficacy. A final study sought to determine exactly how the increased confidence that comes along with a lucky charm influences performance. Specifically, was it making participants set loftier goals for themselves? Was it increasing their persistence on the task? Turns out, it’s both. Participants in the charm-present conditions reported setting higher goals on an anagram task and demonstrated increased perseverance on the task (as measured by the amount of time they spent trying to solve it before asking for help).
So what does this all mean? Should you start scouring the earth for four-leaf clovers? Establish a quirky early morning pre-work routine to increase your productivity? Sadly, if you believe the results reported in this article, none of that will do you any good. The influence of the charm depends crucially on your belief in its inherent powers. Once you acknowledge that performance is a function of what goes on in your brain rather than a product of any mystical properties of the object itself, it becomes useless. That feeling of “I can do this” will wither away as soon as you realize that nothing external, nothing mystical, will influence how you perform – it’s just you and your abilities. Like the science of astronomy strips the starry night of its magic, the science of the mind strips your superstitions of their power. You’d be better off following the model of Walt Whitman: throw on your lucky fedora and forget you ever read this article.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com