Professional athletes are particularly prone to superstitions, perhaps because so much rides on split-second timing, or what seems like luck.
Two dominant US sportsmen with superstitious behaviour are golfer Tiger Woods who always wears a red shirt on Tournament Sundays and basketball player Michael Jordan who wore the same blue underwear throughout his career.
We tend to think of this behaviour as irrational, despite feeling the pull of superstition ourselves (see: why rational people hate to tempt fate). New research published in Psychological Science, however, asks whether these superstitions are irrational if they work.
Damisch et al. (2010) wanted to see if simple superstitions like crossing your fingers or using a lucky charm improved performance on both motor and mental tasks. The answer was a rather surprising yes.
In the first experiment, 28 participants made, on average, 33% more 1m putts when handed a ball branded ‘lucky’ by experimenters (6.4 compared with 4.6 without).
In two further experiments the effect of participant’s lucky charms on both memory and puzzle-solving was tested. Once again participants performed better in the presence of their lucky charms.
To see why these superstitions improved performance, the researchers measured their self-efficacy (roughly equivalent to self-confidence) and goal-setting. This suggested that,
“The increased levels of self-efficacy that result from activating a superstition lead to higher self-set goals and greater persistence in the performance task.”
In other words, the lucky charms appeared to be giving people the confidence to aim higher and keep trying. The belief, however tenuous, that there may be something to a particular superstition could help release nervous tension.
This may be because superstitions allow us the illusion of control in what is a scary, random world. Perhaps that’s why superstitious behaviours to bring good luck are so common: they can sometimes work.
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