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Superstition can boost performance—through confidence, study finds

July 14, 2010
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Don’t scoff at those lucky rab­bit feet. New re­search indi­cates that hav­ing some kind of “lucky” to­ken can ac­tu­ally im­prove your per­for­mance – by in­creas­ing your self-con­fi­dence.

“I watch a lot of sports, and I read about sports, and I no­ticed that very of­ten ath­letes – al­so fa­mous ath­letes – hold su­per­sti­tions,” said Lysann Damisch of the Uni­vers­ity of Co­logne in Ger­ma­ny. 

New re­search shows that hav­ing some kind of “luck­y” to­ken can ac­tu­ally im­prove your per­for­mance – by in­creas­ing your self-con­fi­dence. Above, a necklace with trad­i­tion­al good-luck to­kens.


Mi­chael Jor­dan wore his col­lege team shorts un­derneath his NBA un­iform for good luck; Ti­ger Woods wears a red shirt on tour­na­ment Sun­days, usu­ally the last and most im­por­tant day of a tour­na­ment. 

“I was won­der­ing, why are they do­ing so?” Damisch hy­poth­e­sized that a be­lief in su­per­sti­tion might help peo­ple do bet­ter by im­prov­ing their con­fi­dence. With col­leagues Bar­ba­ra Sto­be­rock and Thom­as Muss­weiler, al­so of the uni­vers­ity, she de­signed a set of ex­pe­ri­ments to see if ac­ti­vat­ing peo­ple’s su­per­sti­tious be­liefs would im­prove their per­for­mance on mem­o­ry and dex­ter­ity games.

In one of the ex­pe­ri­ments, vol­un­teers were told to br­ing a lucky charm with them. Then the re­search­ers took it away to take a pic­ture. Peo­ple brought in all kinds of items, from old stuffed an­i­mals to wed­ding rings to lucky stones. Half of the vol­un­teers were giv­en their charm back be­fore the test started; the oth­er half were told there was a prob­lem with the cam­era equip­ment and they would get it back lat­er. 

Vol­un­teers who had their lucky charm did bet­ter at a com­put­er mem­o­ry game, and oth­er tests showed that this dif­fer­ence was be­cause they felt more con­fi­dent, she said. They al­so set high­er goals for them­selves. 

Just wish­ing some­one good luck – with “I press the thumbs for you,” the Ger­man ver­sion of cross­ing your fin­gers – im­proved vol­un­teers’ suc­cess at a task that re­quired man­u­al dex­ter­ity, the sci­entists re­ported. The find­ings are pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Of course, even Mi­chael Jor­dan lost bas­ket­ball games some­times. “It does­n’t mean you win, be­cause of course win­ning and los­ing is some­thing else,” said Damisch. “Maybe the oth­er per­son is stronger.”


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Don’t scoff at those lucky rabbit feet. New research shows that having some kind of “lucky” token can actually improve your performance – by increasing your self-confidence. “I watch a lot of sports, and I read about sports, and I noticed that very often athletes – also famous athletes – hold superstitions,” said Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne in Germany. Michael Jordan wore his college team shorts underneath his NBA uniform for good luck; Tiger Woods wears a red shirt on tournament Sundays, usually the last and most important day of a tournament. “I was wondering, why are they doing so?” Damisch hypothesized that a belief in superstition might help people do better by improving their confidence. With colleagues Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler, also of the university, she designed a set of experiments to see if activating people’s superstitious beliefs would improve their performance on memory and dexterity games. In one of the experiments, volunteers were told to bring a lucky charm with them. Then the researchers took it away to take a picture. People brought in all kinds of items, from old stuffed animals to wedding rings to lucky stones. Half of the volunteers were given their charm back before the test started; the other half were told there was a problem with the camera equipment and they would get it back later. Volunteers who had their lucky charm did better at a computer memory game, and other tests showed that this difference was because they felt more confident, she added. They also set higher goals for themselves. Just wishing someone good luck – with “I press the thumbs for you,” the German version of crossing your fingers – improved volunteers’ success at a task that required manual dexterity. The research is published in the research journal Psychological Science. Of course, even Michael Jordan lost basketball games sometimes. “It doesn’t mean you win, because of course winning and losing is something else,” said Damisch. “Maybe the other person is stronger.”