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The science of psych

Harder, Better, Faster, Luckier

Superstitious charms and rituals actually do improve performance.

It seems like every two years there's at least one story about Olympics superstitions, where athletes' quirky rituals are catalogued and sports psychologists weigh in on whether they think such irrational behavior helps or hurts performance--without any hard evidence. That's about to change. 

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy reading those stories. And I've written plenty about superstition myself (not to mention the book I'm writing on magical thinking.) The variety of ways people try to control their fortunes never ceases to elicit a "Garsh, humans are so weird!" out of me. But now we can say for sure that lucky charms and rituals actually do give you an edge, thanks to Lysann Damisch and her collaborators at the University of Cologne.

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In an upcoming paper in Psychological Science based on her dissertation, Damish reports four elegant experiments showing that wearing the same lucky underwear for a week (or whatever gross thing you do in pursuit of glory) can actually enhance both physical and intellectual functioning, even if it keeps you from getting lucky in that special way. 

In the first experiment, subjects performed 10 golf putts. When handing the golfer the ball, the experimenter said either, "Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball," or simply, "This is the ball everyone has used so far." Those with the "lucky" ball made 6.42 putts on average, versus 4.75. (That's a 35% improvement.)

In the second experiment, subjects were tested on motor dexterity by manipulating a clear plastic cube to roll 36 little balls through a set of holes. When the experimenter prepped them by saying, "Ich drück dir die Daumen" ("I press the thumbs for you," the German equivalent of "I'm crossing my fingers"), subjects took a little over 3 minutes, versus about 5 1/2 minutes in the control conditions.

For the third experiment, people were invited to the lab for a memory test and asked to bring a personal lucky charm. Half of them kept the charm with them, and for the other half the charm was kept in another room. The subjects reported their levels of anxiety and of self-efficacy (their confidence that they'd master the test) before trying to match 18 pairs of overturned cards by looking at two at a time. The charmed group performed better, a difference mediated by their enhanced self-efficacy. Maybe the other group had separation anxiety? Nope, anxiety was comparable between conditions. (Check out some of the lucky charms on the left.)

Finally, experiment three was repeated with another group, with slight differences. For their task, they had to create as many words as possible using a string of eight letters in front of them. And beforehand they were asked to rate their self-efficacy and also set a goal for how many words they wanted to find. The subjects holding their little piggies and whatnot persisted longer than the other group (about 12 minutes versus 7) and also found about 50% more words. Statistical analysis showed that their better performance was due to greater confidence, but not to their higher goals. (The researchers note that in other tasks, higher goals might play more of a role. Alas, you can't win gold in Vancouver if you don't attempt the big jumps. And it's been demonstrated that people who generally believe luck works in their favor are motivated to try challenging tasks and persist at them.)

I asked Damisch if she thought rituals increase confidence by providing an illusion of control, since feeling powerless or uncertain (as one might in the face of an exam or a big competition) tends to increase superstition. She suspects so and is currently testing the hypothesis.

Previous research has shown that athletic routines (such as bouncing a basketball three times before a free throw) can boost performance, but Damisch and her co-authors note differences between those routines and superstitions. First, routine movements work by focusing attention and by preparing particular motor sequences, not by increasing self-efficacy. Second, superstitions have an additional layer of magical meaning. 

So if you think eating Lucky Charms before a big event will be the key to your success, have at it. Just remember that it takes a special man to reach the Olympics on a diet of pure sugar. 

Do you have any quirky superstitions?

 

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.

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