Crossing your fingers boosts performance (touch wood)


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Amby Burfoot points out a pretty neat study by German researchers in Psychological Science showing that superstition really does boost performance. The researchers point out that, despite their irrationality, superstitions are surprisingly prevalent across cultures, with famous examples such as Michael Jordan wearing his old UNC shorts under his NBA uniform for his entire career. And they’re particularly common in two groups “whose members regularly engage in performance tasks–namely, athletes and students.”

But do they work? The researchers did four studies that suggest they do. The first was a simple test: take ten putts on a golfing green and sink as many as you can.

[W]hile handing the ball over to the participants, the experimenter said, “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball” (superstition-activated condition) or “This is the ball everyone has used so far” (control condition).

Sure enough, the lucky ball group hit 6.42 putts, while the neutral ball group hit just 4.75.

The other three experiments involved motor dexterity, memory and anagrams, and the participants were primed with superstitions like keeping their fingers crossed or having a lucky charm present — all without realizing that the true purpose of the experiment was to test superstitions (anyone who figured it out was excluded from the analysis).

The upshot of the experiments is that superstition’s power appears to mediated through “self-efficacy” — basically, a positive superstition makes you believe you’ll perform better, and that confidence enables you to do so. The researchers point out that this is different from, say, bouncing the ball three times and exhaling loudly every time you take a foul shot. Those sorts of rituals serve to focus attention and trigger well-learned motor sequences, rather than boosting self-efficacy.

And, with respect to truly outstanding performances, [the authors conclude,] the present findings suggest that it may have been the well-balanced combination of existing talent, hard training, and good-luck underwear that made Michael Jordan perform as well as he did.

5 Replies to “Crossing your fingers boosts performance (touch wood)”

  1. Did the study measure neurotransmitter levels? It would be interesting to know if dopamine levels were elevated when superstitions were introduced.

  2. @Richard Ayotte
    Interesting question — no, this study was pure psychology, no neuroscience. It’s certainly plausible that dopamine is part of the reason increasing self-efficacy improves performance, since it’s involved in reward-based behaviour. But that stuff gets pretty complicated, so I’m a little out of my depth there! (I think it’s also extremely difficult to measure dopamine levels in the brain. Researchers often measure blood levels, but that doesn’t really tell you anything about what’s going on on the other side of the blood-brain barrier. That’s why the “runner’s high” study last year was such a big deal — they actually measured the activity of dopamine receptors in the brain using PET scans or something like that.)

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