Why We're So Superstitious
Research shows why we believe a lucky hat or chair can make all the difference.
Posted October 11, 2014
Superstitions are one of the most fascinating, yet least studied, of our everyday behaviors. You’ve probably got a few of your own, and if you’re a die-hard sports fan, the chances go up astronomically. When game day comes, ardent fans may insist on wearing a beat-up old cap (perhaps facing backward), eating a certain meal cooked in a certain way, or making sure to orient themselves in a particular way in front of the TV. You’re probably familiar with at least one person like this; maybe it's you.
But you don’t have to be a sports fan to be subject to such idiosyncratic quirks in your everyday routine: Maybe you’ve got an important presentation at work, which obviously requires that you wear your lucky watch. Or you want to make sure that a date with someone special goes well; you hum to yourself a song that’s always seemed to lead to a good time.
We may not even be fully aware of the many little rules that we follow to ensure that life goes the way we want it to. Without even realizing it, for example, you never once step on a crack while striding on the sidewalk—and you skirt around any ladder that’s propped up against a building.
To understand the meaning of these behaviors, let’s begin with some definitions:
- A ritual is an action that we repeat because of its symbolic value. Religions define the rituals that believers are supposed to conduct, for example, and many of them have developed over centuries of being steeped in tradition if not religious law.
- A superstitious behavior can include rituals you engage in to produce a specific outcome. We learn superstitious behaviors through a simple reinforcement process. The basic principle behind reinforcement is that when a certain action appears to lead to a desired consequence, we repeat it. Most behavior we learn through reinforcement involves a reasonably straightforward process linking cause and effect. This is the basis for operant or instrumental conditioning. With superstitious behavior, we perform an extraneous action that happens to accompany the behavior that's truly being reinforced. Now that extraneous action—the superstitious behavior—itself becomes reinforced.
The lucky watch you wore the day you gave the presentation of your life, through superstitious conditioning, now becomes immortalized as a reason for your success. You wish to avoid jinxing future situations, from now on, or until it wears out completely, you won’t go near an important meeting without it. If for some reason the battery dies the night before one of those big occasions, you may be convinced it’s an omen that you’re doomed to fail.
The watch, in reality, would have had little relation to your success other than perhaps helping you get to the meeting on time. And in most cases, superstitious behaviors have an even more tenuous relationship to outcomes. Here’s where sports fans and their superstitions come into the picture. It makes no difference whatsoever to the outcome of a game what anyone but the players, coaches, and perhaps the cheering fans at the field actually do. The participants have no way of knowing which hat you’re wearing, or which way you’re wearing it. Even if they did, it wouldn’t affect the score, much less how well they played.
So why, if our behaviors have no connection to the outcome of an event, do we act as if they do?
Kent State University researcher Shana Wilson and her colleagues (2013) decided to investigate the common, but relatively under-researched area of sports fan superstitions. The team believed that underlying superstitious behavior was the uncertainty hypothesis, the notion that when people are unsure about an outcome, they try to find a way to control it.
Games are like any unscripted situation—no one knows the results until it occurs. Although this is what makes sports (and reality shows) so exciting, it also drives fans to distraction. They want to know the outcome, and they want that outcome to be favorable. But they also do know realistically that they can’t control it, and this is the crux of the superstition. If I can’t actually influence an event’s outcome, but I think I can (through my superstition), I’ll at least feel a little bit less anxious.
For many people, not having control over an outcome is a frightening proposition. The more important these uncontrollable situations are, the more likely you'll try to dream up ways to control their outcome even though it may be unrealistic.
Sports fans, for all the ribbing they take, do have some decidedly positive mental health advantages over non-fans. Evidence cited by Wilson and her co-workers supports the idea that fans who strongly identify with a team, particularly a local one, are less lonely, feel happier, and feel better about themselves. They also have closer social ties with their fellow fans. Part of the boost that loyal sports fans feel is their sense of being part of something larger than themselves. Loyal fans, compared to the fickle variety, are likely to support their team regardless of its won-loss record. I suspect that they may actually take pride in being so loyal, and that this loyalty itself becomes part of their identity.
Still, even though loyal fans may not “care” if the team wins every game, they are still more likely to feel that something’s at stake in each game’s outcome. Therefore, their sense of anxiety may be higher, which in turn increases their level of frustration at not being able to control that outcome. The only recourse loyal fans have to “helping” the team win is to dig into their bag of superstitious tricks and pull out the stops, from lucky clothing to lucky snacks to good-luck charms.
With this background, Wilson and her fellow researchers predicted that loyal fans would be more likely to display superstitious behavior before high-stakes games. They questioned a sample of 176 college undergraduates, presenting them with a sample vignette to read describing the outcome of a game. Half the participants had stated that they were highly identified with the team; the other half reported that they were not. In one version of the vignette, the game was close; in the other, it was a rout.
As the researchers predicted, participants who strongly identified with their team were more likely than those who weren’t to engage in superstitious behaviors. However, it made no difference to them whether the game was close or not. Loyal fans are more superstitious regardless of the odds that their team will win or lose.
In a larger study of fan identification and superstitious behavior, Murray State University’s Daniel Wann and colleagues (2013) examined the question of how much loyal fans thought their superstitions counted in determining the game’s outcome—and indeed, the most loyal fans felt that they could influence the game’s outcome by adhering to their strict superstitious practices. The most prominent superstitions involved clothing, but the loyal fans also believed that the game’s outcome could be influenced by what they ate or drank, whether they watched the game (or the most crucial plays), and whether they carried good-luck charms.
Sports fan or not, the more you feel that your life is determined by factors outside your control, this research would argue, the more likely you'll become superstitious. Although there’s no true harm in having one or two superstitious beliefs or behavior, the problem comes when you fail to distinguish between outcomes you can control and those you can’t. Your lucky watch will not really get you ahead at work, nor will humming a song ensure that a blind date will like you.
The upshot of this research is that it’s important to distinguish between the controllable and uncontrollable events in your life. Like an avid fan, you might feel that the higher the stakes, the more your superstitions will bring about a win. But like the players that fans root for, in the end, it will be your actual efforts and abilities that bring the success you seek.
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Wann, D. L., Grieve, F. G., Zapalac, R. K., End, C., Lanter, J. R., Pease, D. G., & ... Wallace, A. (2013). Examining the superstitions of sport fans: Types of superstitions, perceptions of impact, and relationship with team identification. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal Of Sport Psychology, 5(1), 21-44.
Wilson, S. M., Grieve, F. G., Ostrowski, S., Mienaltowski, A., & Cyr, C. (2013). Roles of Team Identification and Game Outcome in Sport Fan Superstitious Behaviors. Journal Of Sport Behavior, 36(4), 417-429.