Jul 22, 2010

Superstition can boost performance—through confidence, study finds


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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