Superstitions can improve performance by boosting confidence

By Ed Yong | June 7, 2010 10:00 am

Four-Leaf_cloverSuperstitions run rampant in our daily lives. Sportsmen wear lucky clothes that they refuse to wash during tournaments. Actors refer to Shakespeare’s Macbeth as “The Scottish Play” within the confines of a theatre, because the name is said to be cursed.  Everywhere, people knock on wood, cross their fingers and carry lucky mascots.

It’s easy enough to dismiss these beliefs as the silly by-products of irrational minds, but Lysann Damisch from the University of Cologne has found an upside to superstition – they can improve our performance in a variety of tasks, from physical challenges to memory games. It’s all to do with self-confidence. Pandering to luck-related superstitions, by crossing your fingers in hope or saying “break a leg”, can boost a person’s faith in their own abilities, giving them the edge they need to excel.

First, Damisch asked 51 students to complete a dexterity challenge: get 36 ball bearings into a grid of 36 holes as quickly as possible, by tilting the cube they sat in. If she told them to start by saying either “On ‘go’, you go” or “I press the watch for you”, they took between 5 and 6 minutes to finish. But if she said “I press the thumb for you” (the German equivalent of crossing your fingers), they took around 3 minutes.

In another study, Jamisch asked 41 students to come with a lucky charm, which she took away to photograph. In some cases, she brought it back and in others, she left it in the other room, citing problems with the camera. The students then completed a seemingly unrelated memory game, where they had to match 18 pairs of face-down cards by turning over two at a time. The volunteers who had their lucky charms did much better than those who were bereft of theirs.

Before they started on the game, the recruits all completed a questionnaire. Their answers later revealed that those who were given back their charms didn’t feel any less anxious about the game. But they did feel more confident and their degree of extra optimism accounted for much of their extra success at the memory game.

In a final experiment, Jamisch repeated the lucky charm set-up with a couple of tweaked details. This time they had to make as many words as possible from a set of 8 letters and, crucially, they had to set themselves a goal to aim for.  As before, those who held their lucky charms felt more confident and scored better, identifying an average of 46 words compared to the mere 31 deciphered by their mascot-less peers. Their goals revealed why – not only did they set themselves loftier targets, but they stuck at the problem for much longer.

These experiments are remarkably consistent in showing that a variety of superstitious beliefs have a positive effect on a variety of tasks, both physical and mental. They work whether the superstition is activated by someone else (as in the case of the crossed fingers) or if it’s something unique to the individual (as in the case of the lucky charms). And they work because superstitions, by prompting feelings of good luck, can make people more confident in themselves, prompting them to try harder and aim higher at the things they do.

The fact that superstitions can lead to tangible improvements in physical and mental performance could help to explain why they’re so commonplace and closely held. But before we conclude that they are a force for good (and I can sense the bristling from the skeptic community already), it is worth discussing the study’s narrow scope.

Jamisch certainly does that – she acknowledges that she deliberately focused on positive superstitions associated with good luck, because these are far more common. She might find a different effect altogether if she considered events linked to misfortune, like crossing the path of a wrongly coloured cat, doing the same tasks on Friday 13th, or stepping under an open ladder.

Nor did Jamisch study the negative side of superstitions, the psychological drawbacks that could hinder performance rather than help it. Previously on this blog, I’ve written about how people tend to spot false connections in unrelated events and accept superstitious rituals in the first place if they lack a sense of control in their lives.

As I noted then, the big worry is that superstitions, while potentially providing temporary benefits, could prevent people from taking responsibility for changing their own fates or even form the basis of catastrophic decisions. Clearly, the effects described by Jamisch’s study need to be considered as part of a bigger psychological canvas. The effects of crossed fingers on anagram tasks is one thing, but the effects of conspiracy theories or religious traditions on our ability to understand the world around us and to make decisions in our lives is another matter entirely.

Reference: Psychological Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610372631 or http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/05/27/0956797610372631

Image by Phyzome

More on superstition:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

Comments (13)

  1. Bob Williams

    My first thought was that there was a placebo effect that influenced the outcome of these experiments. Your account doesn’t detail the experiments’ situations or how the subjects might have intuitively understood the intentions of the experimenter.

    And may there not be a placebo effect in the self-defensive delusions of conspiracy theorists?

    Given the small number of subjects, it would be hard to attach great value to these outcomes.

  2. Reminds me of the scene in the Disney version of Dumbo where the mouse convinces him he can fly because he holds a feather in his trunk…when all along, the skill was within him.

  3. Zora

    I read this less as “superstitions can help you” and more as “optimism, whatever the source, will help you.” She provided people with a sense of optimism, and the study seems to indicate that it’s the optimism that makes people achieve more.

    It seems to echo a lot of research on how students do on tests, which is affected by whether they’re told that they are high achievers/good students/etc and thus have cause to be optimistic, or whether they’re told they are in a risk group/likely to do poorly/etc. Good setup = better performance. Engaging superstition is just one way of inducing an optimistic – or, I am sure we’d see if she did look at Friday the 13th or other negative superstitions, a pessimistic – approach to problem-solving.

  4. Jumblepudding

    four leaf clovers are indicative of a “Probability cluster” meaning the likelihood of finding a four-leaf clover is indicative of positive outcomes in other random occurences. The clover is not a cause, it’s a symptom of pre-existing winning streaks which are pre-loaded into the digital slot machine of the universe. That’s my pseudoscientific explanation.

  5. megan

    Self Delusion=Self Hypnosis=Blind self confidence/righteousness=Faith
    Slippery slope of lauding questionable methods using illogic and false data as long as the results are good. Who cares who’s hurt in the process. Placebos DO WORK!

  6. Matt B

    The Macbeth thing isn’t because the name is cursed. Apparently it’s because it was the standard ‘back up’ play for touring rep theatre companies (mainly because it’s Shakespeares shortest play – easy to memorise, quick to rehearse). So the only reason you’d be doing Macbeth is if something awful had happened to stop you doing the real show. Hence invoking it being unlucky.

  7. Chris M.

    Bob: Well, yes, that looks like the point.

    They’ve successfully demonstrated placebo effect, for something that people more or less know is a placebo, in a performance-based experiment, and pretty well isolated the causes of the difference between the control and the placebo.

    Were you thinking there was something else they were showing? Zora’s got it right, as far as I can tell.

    Interesting that the final task is heavily biased toward rewarding optimism. Setting a high goal for a task that will uniformly reward increased time spent makes the effect of motivation much simpler. I’d like to see more experiments where a realistic assessment by the participant of their skill level was rewarded (such as negative points for not reaching the goal) stated beforehand. It’d be interesting to see whether self-confidence remained a good indicator there.

    Setting it up such that persistence was actually a negative would also be good, such as subtracting a small number of points for each minute past a set number. I’d expect those with their lucky charm to be much more willing to risk paying for more time.

  8. Eleanor

    Interesting stuff. I want to see the follow up where they compare the results for weakly-superstitious and strongly superstitious people; I like to think I wouldn’t be affected by this sort of thing, but I’m sure half my lab routines could be classified under superstition, especially where it relates to PCRs…

  9. It occurs to me that the study wasn’t particularly well controlled. (Note: I’ve only read the abstract, skimmed the article and read a couple of write-ups like this one). Sure, I agree the study found superstitions can improve performance, but it didn’t test whether the effect was specific to superstition. Does simple self-affirmation – sans anything paranormal – have the same benefits? How about a pat on the back from an authority figure?

    Basically I’m saying the study didn’t determine whether there is a general phenomenon of performance enhancement one manifestation of which is superstitious, or whether the benefits are specific to superstition. Also: do similar benefits accrue to people who don’t believe in bollocks? E.g. if you give a skeptic a lucky clover or something, does her performance improve?

  10. Rich

    Church-goers live longer: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/heart/articles/2008/11/26/religion-may-help-extend-your-life.html

    And air traffic controllers perform better with their lucky charm to hand (don’t have a reference. Depending on memory).

  11. amy

    The second study has serious flaws and possibly nothing to do with luck or superstition. If the researchers take the charms away and say they were having problems, then possibly the subjects will lose confidence in the research and perform more poorly. The subjects’ results may have improved when they had their luck charms back, because they had more faith in the researchers’ competence, and the situation seemed more smooth and organized.

    There is also not a mention (in the article at least) of whether these subjects merely thought of these as “good luck charms” in passing, like a rabbit’s foot you might happen to have lying around, or had serious belief and superstition in those objects (such as a personal object you found and eased your mind in a time of need, or something passed on from a loved one).

  12. Great comments. I liked @3, @7 and @11 in particular.

    One point to note: the second experiment with the charms only focused on people who are already superstitious to some extent. If people didn’t have any lucky charms, they weren’t invited to the experiment.

    And Michael, no the study didn’t test if the effect was specific to superstition but that’s not what they set out to do, nor was that what they concluded in their paper. They wanted to look at a simple question: does superstitious belief lead to any tangible performance benefit, and I think they showed that. They were very cautious about how these results should be interpreted in a wider context.

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