Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance


Don’t scoff at those lucky rabbit feet. New research shows that having some kind of lucky token can actually improve your performance – by increasing your self-confidence.

“I watch a lot of sports, and I read about sports, and I noticed that very often athletes – also famous athletes – hold superstitions,” says Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne. Michael Jordan wore his college team shorts underneath his NBA uniform for good luck; Tiger Woods wears a red shirt on tournament Sundays, usually the last and most important day of a tournament. “And I was wondering, why are they doing so?” Damisch thought that a belief in superstition might help people do better by improving their confidence. With her colleagues Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler, also of the University of Cologne, she designed a set of experiments to see if activating people’s superstitious beliefs would improve their performance on a task.

Activating a positive superstitious belief can boost people’s confidence, which in turn improves performance: In an experiment, a dexterity task that normally took more than 5 minutes was accomplished in just 191.5 seconds, on average, if participants were wished good luck before they started it, according to research led by Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne in Germany. Before trying to roll 36 little balls into little holes in a transparent plastic cube, the participants were told by a researcher, “I press the thumbs for you,” the German equivalent of “My fingers are crossed for you.”

Of course, even Michael Jordan lost basketball games sometimes. “It doesn’t mean you win, because of course winning and losing is something else,” says Damisch. “Maybe the other person is stronger.”

Courtesy: APS
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