Why do people get superstitious in some situations but not others?

By Seriously Science | February 5, 2015 8:51 am
Image: Flickr/Artotem

Image: Flickr/Artotem

I bet that deep down inside, most of us know that our superstitions aren’t real. But even so, you’ll sometimes see even the most logic-driven scientists crossing their fingers when clicking “submit” to send off their slaved-over manuscripts to journals. So why do some situations bring out the superstition more than others? To investigate this question, these researchers tested which types of goals drove participants to superstitious behaviors. Turns out that people are more likely to turn to luck when trying to achieve performance-based goals rather than learning goals, particularly when they had little confidence in the outcome… like whether or not an editor is going to bounce your article back in less than 24 hours.

Reliance on Luck: Identifying Which Achievement Goals Elicit Superstitious Behavior.

“People often resort to superstitious behavior to facilitate goal achievement. We examined whether the specific type of achievement goal pursued influences the propensity to engage in superstitious behavior. Across six studies, we found that performance goals were more likely than learning goals to elicit superstitious behavior. Participants were more likely to engage in superstitious behavior at high than at low levels of chronic performance orientation, but superstitious behavior was not influenced by chronic learning orientation (Studies 1 and 2). Similarly, participants exhibited stronger preferences for lucky items when primed to pursue performance goals rather than learning goals (Studies 3 and 4). As uncertainty of goal achievement increased, superstitious behavior increased when participants pursued performance goals but not learning goals (Study 5). Finally, assignment to use a lucky (vs. unlucky) item resulted in greater confidence of achieving performance goals but not learning goals (Study 6).”

Related content:
Is poker a game of skill or chance?
NCBI ROFL: Attention and performance in miniature golf across the life span.
NCBI ROFL: Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance.

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Seriously, Science?, formerly known as NCBI ROFL, is the brainchild of two prone-to-distraction biologists. We highlight the funniest, oddest, and just plain craziest research from the PubMed research database and beyond. Because nobody said serious science couldn't be silly!
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