Episode 129 (video): Science Shows Superstitions Actually Work! Sort of…

MichaelCognition, Intelligence and Language, Critical Thinking, Motivation11 Comments

Okay, admit it – you have some kind of lucky charm on you, in your car or in your house. And if you participate in any sport or performance activity you have some sort of ritual that you believe will help make you more successful. Well guess what – there is research to show that such charms and rituals really do help you perform better. Find out how in this episode of The Psych Files.

Resources on Superstitions

  • Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21, 7, 1014-1020.
  • "Fingers Crossed" summarized on Science Daily
  • "Fingers Crossed" summarized by U.S. News

  • Buhrmann, H.G., & Zaugg, M.K. (1981). Superstitions among basketball players: An investigation of various forms of superstitious beliefs and behavior among competitive basketballers at the junior high school to university level. Journal of Sport Behavior, 4, 163–174.
  • Darke, P.R., & Freedman, J.L. (1997). Lucky events and beliefs in
    luck: Paradoxical effects on confidence and risk-taking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 378–388.
  • Day, L., & Maltby, J. (2003). Belief in good luck and psychological well-being: The mediating role of optimism and irrational beliefs. The Journal of Psychology, 137, 99–110.
  • Day, L., & Maltby, J. (2005). “With good luck”: Belief in good luck and cognitive planning. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 1217–1226.
  • Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: Free Press.
  • Keinan, G. (1994). Effects of stress and tolerance of ambiguity on magical thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 48–55.
  • Lobmeyer, D., & Wasserman, E.A. (1986). Preliminaries to free throw shooting: Superstitious behavior? Journal of Sport Behavior, 9, 70–78.
  • Shah, J. (2003). Automatic for the people: How representations of significant others implicitly affect goal pursuit. Journal of Per- sonality and Social Psychology, 84, 661–681.
  • Whitson, J.A., & Galinsky, A.D. (2008). Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception. Science, 322, 115–117.

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11 Comments on “Episode 129 (video): Science Shows Superstitions Actually Work! Sort of…”

  1. It “works” only if you believe it works. I suppose you could “create a lucky charm” by picking something that happened to be around when something good happens. Why not? But lucky charms don’t really work. Again unless you really think they will. I think I’m caught in an endless loop here. Anyway, give it a try I guess.

  2. I’m not actually a psychology student, I’m a speech therapy student but after watching this video I thought to myself “wow, if this actual works I want a lucky charm”. So my question is do you think it’s possible to ‘create’ a lucky charm and thereby the confidence and success supposedly associated with it? especially considering I now know the psychology behind it? For example if something good happens to me could I, theoretically speaking, pick any item I happen to have on me and somehow make myself believe it’s a lucky charm?

  3. RQuinn: I really like your idea of having the thumbs pressed, but not letting the subject know that this was being done. I mean – you’re supposed to set up a truly fair situation when you do an experiment so your suggestion is relevant. I never thought of it but I like it.

    Your second critique about how subjects might have done more poorly because they were distracted due to a valued item being not in their possession – hmmm…I don’t know if I buy it. I mean – the lucky charm wasn’t lost (it was just in the other room), so I don’t think any significant distraction would take place. Interesting comment though!

  4. Just jotting this down briefly before work, so forgive me if I missed something major. I *just* saw this episode and was frustrated with the last three experiments in the study:

    The second study – pressing the thumbs – why not have a third condition in which the thumbs were pressed, but the participants were not told of this. Perhaps not explicitly necessary to the study (assuming a scientific audience who knows superstitions themselves have no power), but worth emphasizing the point that it’s the participants’ beliefs that drive the improvement in performance.

    The third and fourth studies – the lucky charm kept away – I’m not convinced at all that the participants whose charms were kept away weren’t simply distracted by having a valued item out of their control. Why not ask half the students to bring something of value, stating that it should not be a lucky charm, or ask all the students to bring two items: a lucky charm and a non-lucky item of sentimental value. Including conditions where only the non-lucky item was kept beyond their control would tell whether or not it was the loss of the lucky item or simply being distracted with a lost item that caused participants to perform more poorly.

    Interesting study regardless, and I look forward to looking it over fully later. Off to work for me!

  5. at first, i didnt think that was a good theory, then i thought to myself, well, these people are superstitious. Anyways, I enjoy your podcasts. Keep doing them.

  6. Scott: I love the idea – so the fact that the camera “broke” proved to the subjects that there’s “bad luck in the air” perhaps, so that’s why they did poorly on the task. Interesting perspective on the study.

  7. Well, the study was to find out whether the presence of the lucky charm affects performance, but the method used to remove the presence of the lucky charm was a broken camera. I suspect that some of the subject viewed that as being unlucky reinforced by the fact that it was related to their lucky charm.

  8. Scott: interesting observation. I never thought about it, but can you expand on your thought: why might the supposed “problems with the camera” affect their performance?

  9. regarding the study involving the subject bringing in their lucky charm, doesnt the fact that the camera “broke” affect their performance since those people are believers

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