I was very slow to get off the starting block on this one as even Ben Goldacre has already blogged this! However, I have had something major to deal with this week (and no, its not you dear lady) but here is a short blog about a forthcoming study in Psychological Science about the tangible benefits of superstitions. A team from Köln in Germany has shown that university students of whom more than 80% believe in luck, perform significantly better on a putting task if they think they have been handed a “lucky” golf ball. They also did significantly better than controls on a second experiment if they were told that someone was crossing their fingers for them. In a third experiment, students who had brought their lucky talisman along to the testing session did better when it was in the testing room. The fourth experiment demonstrated that these lucky students attributed their better performance to improved self-efficacy. So there we have it. If you believe in lucky charms then you perform better because of perceived self-efficacy. It’s all in the Science of Superstition book, though I call it the perception of control.
I should point out however, that one error in the book I made was to endorse the Skinnerian account of where supersitions come from that has been re-iterated by other scholars on the subjects such as Andrew Vyse, in his 1997 book, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. We have both reported Skinner’s famous 1948 paper on the origins of superstitious behaviour where he put several pigeons in Skinner boxes, set the food dispenser to deliver food every 15 seconds, and left the birds to their own devices. Later he returned and found the birds engaging in odd, idiosyncratic behaviours, such as pecking aimlessly in a corner or turning in circles. He referred to these behaviours as “superstitious” and offered a behaviourist analysis of their occurrence. The pigeons, he argued, were simply repeating behaviours that had been accidentally reinforced. Therefore superstitions were thought to simply emerge by the random reinforcements that we occasionally encounter such as having a great tennis match and wearing the same clothes again to try and repeat the success. However, this turns out not to be entirely robust and while some humans show this propensity, it is not inevitable.
Anyway back to our German psychology study. Maybe this research on superstition and self-efficacy explains Germany’s stellar performance in their game against Australia and why England fumbled the ball!