Michael Jordan wore his college team’s shorts underneath his Bulls uniform because he believed it brought him good luck. If six NBA championships can be considered proof, his superstition worked. It sounds silly, but it’s not all magic. Absurd as superstitions may seem, psychologists have an explanation for why it’s not so far-fetched to believe a lucky charm can make you perform better.
Superstitions can range from small behavioural choices (like always putting on your right shoe first) to more extreme decisions (say, you avoid the number 13 at all costs). The most curious thing about these superstitions is that they actually work and can alter your behaviour, boost your performance and help you achieve your goals.
To get a grasp on why we believe in superstitions — and how superstition and placebos manage to have measurable positive effects — I talked with Dr Stuart Vyse, Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, and Matthew Hudson, science writer and author of Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.
Let’s start by taking a look at why we believe in superstitions to begin with before we move onto the reasons why you should sometimes embrace them (while being wary of getting too attached to them).
Why Superstitions and Placebos Change Your Behaviour
We should get a working definition of superstition here, because on its own it’s a broad term that encompasses a whole slew of magical thinking. Both Dr Vyse and Matthew Hudson provided similar definitions, so we’ll cobble them together into one:
A superstition is a belief or behaviour that’s inconsistent with conventional science and attributes functional mental properties into non-mental phenomenon. Essentially, a superstition is a belief that the universe is always watching you and changes depending on your actions or what you’re holding.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Let’s look at why we believe them.
Why We Believe in Superstitions
At their core, superstitions are self-fulfilling prophecies. You plant an idea in your head, allow yourself to believe in magic, and then believe doing something in a particular way or wearing a trinket will help you perform better. This seems insane, but it’s a common phenomenon. We have different theories as to why we believe in superstitions, even though most people know they’re entirely made up. Dr Vyse explains:
There are a couple of primary reasons. One is that people teach them to us when we’re young. They’re part of the lore of any culture. The basic process of socialisation is a major part of it.
Also, we live in a world where there are always going to be important things in our lives that we can’t completely control and their outcome is uncertain. Superstitions tend to emerge in those contexts. You do everything you possibly can to ensure that things will work out. Superstitions are employed as one more thing to help you bring [a desired outcome] about. They’re maintained in part by a phenomenon psychologists call the “illusion of control.” In certain circumstances if you perform some action that can’t possibly affect the outcome in any real sense, you have the feeling that you have control and that feels good — better than just sitting and waiting.
Another theory is based on the idea of the “illusion of control”, but as Hudson points out, it’s about making sense of the world:
One common theme is pattern-recognition. People are very good at seeing patterns in the world. It’s how we learn. It’s how we get by. We’re so good that we see patterns even when they’re not there. Coincidences pop out at us all the time, and we immediately try to find an explanation for these patterns. Oftentimes we rely on these mystical forces that try to explain the things we see. Maybe you made this thing happen or the universe made this thing happen as a sign to you to improve your life.
As for the origin of these beliefs, one theory is that we evolved to believe in superstitions based on these pattern recognitions. In an article in New Scientist evolutionary biologist Kevin Foster suggests we learnt superstitions based on the need to survive:
In general, an animal must balance the cost of being right with the cost of being wrong. Throw in the chances that a real lion, and not wind, makes [a] rustling sound, and you can predict superstitious beliefs.
Essentially, you have superstitions because you want to believe that you can change your fate, that a little magic in your routine can change the outcome of an event, and because you need a little confidence boost. It’s not a bad thing to believe in superstitions, and as we’ll see in later sections, believing in them can actually boost your performance. Photo by Mykl Roventine.
How Placebos Can Boost Mind and Body Performance
It’s worth talking briefly about placebos here because superstitions can be thought of as placebos. This is especially the case when an object is imbued with properties to heal or give you luck. When you take a placebo, your brain can respond by releasing dopamine. On top of other things, dopamine triggers the reward centre of the brain and in turn can change a mood. Having a reaction to a placebo is commonly referred to as the placebo effect, something everyone has heard of.
Like superstitions, the placebo effect can generate a subjective outcome. If you believe in an outcome, when it happens you’ll connect that to what you did before (wore a good luck charm or took a fake pill).
In some ways the difference between a placebo and a superstition is tiny. Take, for instance, people’s insistence that Vitamin C and Echinacea prevent colds, despite no scientific evidence existing for either. Dr Howard Brody explains this to Psychology Today:
We know that among the variables in human function that appears readily able to respond to the placebo effect is IgA-the immunoglobulin that is present in mouth and nose mucus that provides the first line of defence against germs like cold viruses. So we might postulate (but cannot prove) that these “placebos” stimulate IgA production, and thereby actually do help reduce the number of colds people suffer, without any “direct” chemical effect taking place — ie the placebo effect at work. So in this instance we have a clear mechanism by which placebos could work for prevention.
Additionally, as the author at Psychology Today, Steven Kotier points out in his own story, the differences between a placebo and a superstition are hard to define sometimes:
When I was 15 years old, I split my patella in a skiing accident. There’s nothing to do for a split patella other than wait. And don a knee sleeve. I wore mine clear into my thirties. Whenever I went skiing, the sleeve went with me. Never mind that the patella was all healed up by the time I got out of college; I found that on the days I went naked, the knee consistently throbbed.
The point is that when you believe doing something to make a difference in an outcome — like taking a fake pill, alternative medicines, wearing a knee sleeve or knocking on wood — it can increase the chances of a positive outcome. You can actually trigger certain responses in the brain and body that help you meet a certain goal. Photo by Anders Sandberg.
When Rituals Turn Into Superstitions
So we have a good understanding of why we believe in superstitions and in turn how placebos work in a similar fashion. What about those of us who didn’t grow up with complex superstitions but still feel like we have them? For instance, I have to walk to the end of a block, pause for two minutes, then return to an entryway before I have to give a presentation or speak in public. That sounds like a ritual, but when do these rituals become superstitions? I asked both experts what they thought and they both agreed: it’s when you imbue a ritual with magical power. Dr Vyse explains:
There is a clear psychological value to establishing a routine — coaches often tell players that if they don’t have a pre-game ritual they should try to establish one simply because it focuses your mind in a mantra-like way to keep the anxiety away. That’s quite rational. It becomes a superstition when it moves over to magical thinking. So when you think you have to step on the line three times before you go out onto the field or that sort of thing. It has gone beyond the ritual aspect of it and has moved on to some incantation — a magical feature.
The difference between a ritual and a superstition is in the expected outcome. If you believe that performing your morning ritual or your pre-game routine can alter the outcome, then it’s a superstition. If you just do it to calm yourself before taking a plunge into an important event, the ritual continues as a ritual. The interesting thing, as Dr Vyse noted, is that while routines have a psychological benefit, so do superstitions.
Stop Being So Rational and Embrace Your Superstitions
We have a good idea as to why we believe in superstitions, and it’s partially to help up make sense and feel significant in a massive, confusing world. Can believing in a superstition — whether it’s routines or lucky charms — really help us perform better? Yes, it turns out. Hudson explains:
Superstitious rituals can give us a sense of control when we’re feeling anxious or when we don’t have a lot of control over a situation. This illusory feeling of control can enhance real control and boost performance in some situations.
For instance, a study (published in in the journal of Psychological Science) gave golf balls to all of its subjects. Half of them were told the golf ball was lucky. These subjects made 35 per cent more successful putts. Feeling lucky gave them a better sense of self-efficacy (a belief in your own confidence), which then enhanced their performance with the golf playing. The same researcher did several other experiments where she crossed fingers for them or the subjects had lucky charms on them. Their superstition helped them perform better on certain cognitive tasks, memory games and physical tasks.
The benefits come from both the placebo effect and the illusion of control. When you wear a lucky pair of shorts or perform a ritualistic dance before you give a speech, you trigger different parts in your brain that make you more receptive to the changes in the world around you. Wearing those lucky shorts, for instance, gives you a confidence boost. It also makes you visualise a positive outcome.
When you prime your brain with that, you’re more receptive to opportunities and you project positivity in a way that people respond to it. Imbuing objects and routines with a the magical power of a superstition is essentially a way to prime yourself to act a certain way. It’s not magic, but it’s pretty close. Photo by London Looks.
The Dangers of Superstition (and What You Can Do to Keep Your Relationship Positive)
It’s not all positive. Believing deeply in the power of superstitions can have negative effects and believing in unlucky superstitions, like Friday the 13th, black cats, or the ill effects of walking under a ladder have no positive effects whatsoever. In fact, believing in bad luck can have a negative effect because it increases your anxiety for no good reason. Dr Vyse explains:
I don’t see any benefit to teaching people the unlucky superstitions — the number 13, black cats and so forth — these are superstitions that merely increase anxiety and force you into situations where if it comes along you have to think about whether or not you want to deal with it.
Any good superstition can have a downside if you become dependent on it. If on some occasion you forget to do your superstition you feel horrible. There’s a delicate balance to keeping it positive.
Overdoing your positive beliefs can also have major, life-altering repercussions. Hudson explains:
It’s possible to be overconfident. Stock traders might have too much confidence so they start making wild trades when they have no control over what they’re doing. Or people invest a lot of money in lotteries thinking they can influence these things with rituals and luck. It’s good to boost your control beyond reality a little bit, but everything needs to be within reason. If you invest too much faith in these things then they can increase anxiety, like, “Nothing will go right if you don’t wear a certain tie.” Then you lose the tie and you think, “Oh my god my life is ruined now.”
Like most things in life, the key here is moderation. The fact that stock trading goes down on Friday the 13th, as does travel, financial deals, and even movie releases isn’t healthy. Dr Vyse has never had a patient call and complain about superstitions taking over their life, but he also stresses that they’re best used in tandem with real preparation. For example, a lucky charm on a test is helpful provided you also studied for the test. Photo by Karin Dalziel.
The real takeaway here is that despite the fact that most people won’t admit it, many of us are superstitious to some degree. Believing in these superstitions isn’t a bad thing as long as you use them as part of a larger plan and integrate them into your life in a healthy way. Best of all, believing in superstitions can provide that subtle but useful boost to your performance on all sorts of tasks.
How about you? Besides well known superstitions like knocking on wood or crossing your fingers, do you have any superstitious rituals or carry any lucky charms? And what do they “do” for you?