Professional athletes are particularly prone to superstitions, perhaps because so much rides on success or maybe out of the desire to avoid failure. Most superstitions come into existence because a particularly good performance, or a reversal in bad performances, is attributed to something the player did prior to the game.
There are numerous examples of top level sportsmen with superstitious behaviour. Here are a few:
We tend to think of this behaviour as irrational, despite feeling the pull of superstition ourselves. 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.
The first experiment was a 1 metre golf putting test and 28 participants made, on average, 33% more 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 ‘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,
In other words, the lucky charms appeared to be giving people the confidence to aim higher, to keep trying and a higher level of self-belief. The belief alone that a particular superstition works, could help release nervous tension freeing players to perform better.
This may be because superstitions give us the illusion of control in what is an unpredictable world. Perhaps that’s why superstitious behaviour intended to bring good luck is so common: it sometimes works.
Enjoy the game,