Superstitions: More Than Good Luck, They Improve Performance

Image courtesy billaday

Whether you admit it publicly or not, you probably have superstitions - most people swear by them. They’re those little superstitious behaviors people do for luck, like: knock on wood, cross fingers, tap two feet before boarding a plane, or wear that certain pair of underwear before an important meeting. Professional athletes like golf legend Tiger Woods, hockey player Patrick Roy, and basketball champion LeBron James have long used rituals and lucky charms to help focus and improve performance.

For regular Joes, superstitious beliefs have been the subject of ridicule and mockery. Now new research is showing that magical thinking actually improves self-confidence, which ultimately leads to improvement in performance.


Tempting Fate

Social psychologist Lysann Damisch et al., designed four experiments to test the effectiveness of ‘good-luck’ beliefs. The researchers looked at whether superstitious behaviors like crossing fingers, using lucky charms or common sayings such as, “break a leg” had any effect on mental and motor tasks. The results of the four experiments showed the superstitions did improve performance and the findings provided insight into how superstitions worked. It appears that superstitions boosted the self-confidence of participants abilities, encouraging them to work harder and persist longer at the task until they succeeded.

In another study, psychologists Jane Risen and Thomas Gilovich looked at how ‘reasonably intelligent’ people view actions that appear to tempt fate. Participants were asked to read one of two possible endings to a story. Through their researchthey found that participants believed tempting fate can increase the chances of negative outcomes.


Boosting Optimism

It doesn’t matter what you call it; superstitions, a good luck charm, or destiny, we use this magical thinking to help us explain the world. According to Matthew Hutson, author of the new book The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, “The brain is wired to see patterns, so we make connections and create explanations.” Studies have shown that when we feel lucky or follow a superstition, it gives us enough confidence and optimism to boosts our performance.

If you’ve ever had faith that “things will work out as they are supposed to” or looked back and thought, “everything happens for a reason”, you’ve engaged in a teleological reasoning. Teleology is the belief that certain phenomena can be explained in terms of purpose rather than cause, i.e., God, karma, or fate. “It provides a sense of meaning in life. You feel like what happens to you is part of a larger narrative. The universe cares about you. And if something bad happens, you’re more likely to view it as a lesson or calling to do something positive,” says Hutson.


Law of Attraction

“Scientifically, the law of attraction actually does work,” says Hutson—but not because of mental frequencies. Holding on to the belief of a positive expectation or outcome can lead to it becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. When you are clear about what you want, you begin to recognize opportunities as they appear and you project confidence to go after them.

The belief, however tenuous, that there is something to a particular superstition, lucky piece of underwear or a higher power that has plans for us, helps release nervous tension. This is the power of superstitions; they allow us the illusion of control in what is otherwise a scary, random world. Perhaps this is why superstitious behaviors are so common: they can sometimes work.


Do you have a good luck charm or a superstition? How has it benefitted you? Share your experience in the comment section.

Sources:, The New York Times, Psyblog

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