How #Superstitions Really Work


(The following excerpt from How Superstitions Really Work by Alex Lickerman, M.D., was posted on on September 13, 2013. To view it in its entirety please click on the link below.)

According to a Gallup poll, almost 50 percent of American are superstitious, believing that certain rituals, like wearing unmatched socks, will influence the likelihood of an event, like pitching a no-hitter. Yet few people—or polls—attempt to determine exactly what force connects such rituals with such outcomes.

Until now, that is. Recently a paper entitled “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” researchers Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler argue that not only do superstitions give people a sense of control in chaotic situations, but also that superstitions create directly observable performance improvements. In one experiment, twenty-eight college students were asked to make ten attempts to putt a golf ball. A pretest showed that more than 80 percent of them believed in good luck, so while handing the ball over to the participants, the experimenter said, “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball” (which experimenters dubbed the superstition-activated condition) or “This is the ball everyone has used so far” (which experimenters dubbed the control condition). Results showed that subjects who’d been given a “lucky ball” performed better than subjects given a “normal” ball. In another experiment reported in the same paper, when subjects were allowed to perform a task in the presence of a lucky charm they’d brought with them from home, their performance was better than those whose lucky charms were removed while they were performing the task. The subjects who were allowed to keep their lucky charms with them also reported a higher sense of self-efficacy. Anxiety levels were identical between the two groups, however.

Which raises the intriguing possibility that any belief, whether true or not, which increases our confidence might have the same power to get us what we want when the outcome depends on our own performance. Prayer in any religion, then, might be effective not because it actually invokes a supreme being or even a mystic law, but because it invokes our belief in those things, invokes a sense that we have an “ace in the hole,” which then provides us the confidence to perform better, to keep trying, and to remain optimistic.

A belief in a force external to ourselves that can be invoked to help us may not be merely comforting, then. It may be a powerful psychological lever we can pull to access forces within ourselves that actually affect our ability to achieve what we want — even if our belief is incorrect.

Which raises a troubling question: What if our belief is incorrect? Should we care? Should we pursue the truth even if it may mean forfeiting not just a comforting notion but a notion that may help us succeed in life? What do readers think?


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