Magical Thinking 180 x 600

What do Halloween and the Baseball World Series have in common? Nothing you say.  Think again! Both are rife with superstitious thinking and behavior.

As a fanatical fan watching the Boston Red Sox in the American League division playoffs last week, the superstitious behavior of Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli, caught my attention. After striking out 8 times in the playoffs against the Detroit Tigers, Napoli decided something had to change. That change was not at home plate. Instead, Napoli went with new attire, choosing a longer pair of pants, and instead of keeping the pant legs up to show off his red socks, he put them down.

Then, on the 100th pitch of the evening, Napoli swung on a 96-mph fastball and hit a home run, the only run of the 1-0 victory for Boston, giving them a 2-1 lead in the playoffs.  Coincidence?  Maybe or perhaps something else was at play.

Magical Thinking Napoli image

It’s easy enough to dismiss knocking on wood, crossing your fingers or changing clothes in the middle of a baseball game as irrational, but scientists such as Lysann Damisch from the University of Cologne have found that superstitions can improve performance in a variety of tasks, from physical challenges to memory games.

What the research says

In a study conducted by Damisch, she asked 41 students to bring a lucky charm with them before playing a memory game. She took the good luck charms away.  In some cases, she gave it back and in others, she didn’t. The students then had to match 18 pairs of facedown cards by turning over two at a time. The volunteers who had their lucky charms did much better than those who didn’t.

Following the game, the students were asked to complete a questionnaire. Those who were given back their charms felt more confident. It was clear that their optimism contributed to their success.

This experiment and others like it are consistent in showing that a variety of superstitious beliefs have a positive effect on a variety of tasks, both physical and mental. By stimulating feelings of good luck, superstitions can make people feel self-assured, encouraging them to try harder and aim higher.

According to Jane L. Risen and A. David Nussbaum, professors of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago “almost any behavior can be turned into a superstitious ritual.” The most effective are ones that change how we feel.

People often become superstitious when faced with unknown and stressful situations, possibly explaining why athletes and students are often superstitious, the researchers say. Engaging in a superstition can provide a sense of control in situations of uncertainty.

How can you use a superstitious ritual to your advantage?

If you have an upcoming interview or a big presentation at work, what ritual might work for you?  Whether it’s wearing your power suit or the rabbit’s foot in your pocket, it could help give you the extra edge you need.