The Power of Superstition

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:

  • Golfer Tiger Woods always wears a red shirt on Tournament Sundays.
  • Basketball player Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina college shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform.
  • Top tennis player Rafael Nadal of Spain is obsessive about his drinks. His water bottles must be lined up, with the labels facing the baseline he is playing from.
  • In the 1998 football World Cup, French defender Laurent Blanc would kiss the shaven head of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez before the kick off of each game. France lifted the trophy.
  • Football player Kolo Toure likes to be last onto the pitch. In February 2009 this made him miss the start of the second half of Arsenal’s European Champions League tie against Italian team AS Roma – and earned him a booking for entering the field of play without the referee’s permission.
  • Former England forward, Gary Lineker changed his shirt for the second half of a match if he hadn’t scored, but continued in the same shirt if he had.

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’.

Confidence boost

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, 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,


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