Perhaps we should stop ridiculing individuals who perform irrational actions based on superstition: New research shows the actions often increase self-confidence, thereby improving performance.
Lysann Damisch and University of Cologne colleagues Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler decided to research the effect of superstitions after watching athletes, including famous athletes, perform meaningless behavior or rituals as part of their athletic routine.
Damisch thought that a belief in superstition might help people do better by improving their confidence. She and her team designed a set of experiments to see if activating people’s superstitious beliefs would improve their performance on a task.
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 memory game on the computer, and other tests showed that this difference was because they felt more confident.
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 Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Of course, even with improved confidence, you may still lose. “It doesn’t mean you win, because of course winning and losing is something else,” says Damisch. “Maybe the other person is stronger.”