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Are Superstitions Rational?

By many accounts, Bjorn Borg is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. The former world no. 1 won 11 Grand Slam titles between 1974 and 1981. Most remarkably, he won 82 percent of all the professional matches he played. He had skills.

But that’s not all he had. Like many athletes, he had superstitions. To prepare for Wimbledon, Bjorn grew a beard and wore the same Fila shirt during the matches. It worked too. He holds a career record of 51-4 at Wimbledon along with five consecutive singles titles he recorded in the second half of the 1970s. Bjorn’s “lucky beard,” as the Swedes termed it, has become a staple in other sports. Today, NFL, NBA and NHL players sport the “playoff beard” in search of a competitive edge.

Superstitions are, by many accounts, irrational and scientifically backwards. However, empirical evidence suggests that this might not be entirely true. A few years ago social psychologist Lysann Damisch teamed up with Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler to measure what effects, if any, superstitions had in sports.

In one experiment, the social scientists tested the “lucky ball” myth by having two groups of participants attempt ten golf putts from a distance of 100cm. Like good psychologists they told one group of participants that the ball they were about to use “turned out to be lucky” (superstition-activated condition). In contrast, they told the second group they were using a ball that everyone used (control condition). The researchers found that participants in the superstition-activated condition drained 35 percent more putts than participants in the control condition.

In a related study conducted last year, undergraduate Charles Lee of the University of Virginia joined with Sally Linkenauger to see if superstitious beliefs about equipment affected performance. They recruited 41 undergraduates with backgrounds in golf for their study. Similar to Damisch’s team, Lee and Linkenauger told half of the students they were using a really nice putter and the other half that British Open champion and PGA tour player Ben Curtis, who was known to be an expert putter, previously owned the putter they were able to use. (Importantly, all of the undergraduates knew who Curtis was.) Their findings were telling: students who putted with “Curtis’” putter sank, on average, one and a half more balls.

What accounts for these findings? The basis for superstitious beliefs is sheer fantasy, but their effects can be real and consequential. For example, a 2010 paper by Travis Ng of Hong Kong University found that superstitions surrounding ‘8’ and ‘4’ in Cantonese – 8 is considered lucky because it rhymes with prosper and prosperity whereas 4 is unlucky because it rhymes with die or death – affected the economics of license plates. Here’s the BPS Research Digest:

Controlling for visual factors that affect price (for example, plates with fewer digits are more sought-after) Ng’s team found that an ordinary 4-digit plate with one extra lucky ‘8’ was sold 63.5 per cent higher on average. An extra unlucky ‘4’ by contrast diminished the average 4-digit plate value by 11 per cent. These effects aren’t trivial. Replacing the ‘7’ in a standard 4-digit plate with an ‘8’ would boost its value by roughly $400.

So why do we believe in superstitions in the first place? Some cases are clearer than others. In terms of athletic performance, evidence suggests that a superstitious belief in certain objects (Curtis’ putter) and habits (Bjorn’s beard) gives us confidence, which moreover improves performance. In terms of the study involving Ben Curtis’ putter, it’s the clubs history that’s relevant. For the same reason people would like to wear a sweater knitted by Mother Teresa or use Einstein’s pencil, we believe that the equipment a legend used would give us an advantage on the playing field. In the case of Bjorn’s beard, the habit provides structure and security to an otherwise disorganized or nervous pre-Wimbledon routine.

It’s also hypothesized that superstitions arise from our natural tendency to seek evidence of intentionality in the world. We want reasons for things, and we want those reasons to have an author (e.g., God, destiny, karma, the force). We hate randomness. Many religious beliefs come about from teleological reasoning along these lines. And like superstitions in sports, there are real consequences. This is what research from anthropologist Richard Sosis suggests. As a recent NYTimes reports:

[Sosis] found that in Israel during the second intifada in the early 2000s, 36 percent of secular women in the town of Tzfat recited psalms in response to the violence. Compared with those who did not recite psalms, he found, those women benefited from reduced anxiety: they felt more comfortable entering crowds, going shopping and riding buses — a result, he concluded, of their increased sense of control.

All of this research encourages the idea that superstitious beliefs might not be entirely irrational. Although there is no empirical data to suggest that superstitions are real in it of themselves, their behavioral consequences illustrate a different trend.

There are downsides, of course, to fantastical thinking – athletes often become overly obsessed with pregame rituals and many religious beliefs led to less than ideal scenarios. But superstitions are essential. For better or for worse, they are a natural component of our cognition.

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