This paper is a reflection on chapter 27 of ANNUAL EDITIONS: Psychology 13/14, Forty-Fourth Edition. “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance” is the final chapter of Unit 5: Cognitive Processes and was co-authored by Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler. This chapter was chosen because I think that just about everyone has an interest in irrational behavior such as those represented by superstitious behavior. I am interested it and looked forward to what the chapter had to offer on the subject of how superstitious acts can vary. I always find it humorous whenever someone says they are not superstitious because what they usually mean is that they won’t avoid walking under a ladder or taking something with the number 13 on it. On the other hand, they don’t appear to consider references to having good or bad luck to be superstitious.
The chapter opens with high-profile examples of that utterly irrational kind of behavior most people think of as being superstitious when asserting that they believe it: Michael Jordan wearing his college basketball team shorts under his professional uniform throughout his career, for example, and Tiger Woods always wearing a red shirt on golf tournament Sundays. Perhaps it was the extraordinary success of high performance athletes like Jordan and Woods that stimulated the hypothesis presented by the authors that engaging in superstitious behavior (regardless of the irrationality level) actually did produce a quantifiably positive effect on performance. I’m sure even the average reader could make a fairly decent guess at where the actual psychological basis this hypothesis was heading: that good old standby known as the power of positive thinking. The average person may knock on wood or toss salt over the shoulder or even hang a rabbit’s food from the rear view mirror inside their car, but they don’t actually invest those things with the power to bring about results. This chapter was clearly going to be about taking superstition to that next level and it didn’t take a scientific experiment to predict that the overriding factor at play from a psychological perspective was going to be that the more you believe in the superstition, the greater the likelihood of a measurable effect. What maintained my interest was how they would go about creating a control in order to produce any measurable data.
As this is a reflection paper, I must admit to an initial sense of disappointment in the methodology they ultimately chose. Essentially, the experiment volunteers were asked to putt a golf ball which had been handed to them with either the directive that the ball had proven lucky during prior use or that it was the same ball everyone had used and as such contained neither positive or negative properties.
Things began to take a more interesting turn with a second experiment involving manual dexterity performed either under conditions involving the activation of a good luck phrase or the absence of the phrase in the control group that I can only hope—but doubt—was less complicated and confusing than the description given in the text. Experiment 3 was even more fascinating as it relied on volunteers who admitted to having a lucky charm of some sort being tested on their performance while in possession of the object and without possession of the object. In both cases, the superstition yield higher achievement in performance. A fourth experiment greatly expanded upon thesis by indicating expectations of better performance when a lucky superstition was invoked than when it was denied.
As expected, the experiment essentially confirmed what is likely a rather universal expectation that the link between better performance and the use of superstition is essentially related to the power of positive thinking. Which is why the single most interesting aspect of this chapter for me had nothing to do with the performance level exhibited by the participants, but rather how invoking the power of superstition impacted their persistence on task in which they attempted to locate as many anagrams as possible from a given letter set (D, S, E, T, N, R, I, and E). Perhaps the only aspect of the experiment that the average reader might not have foreseen is that investing belief in a superstition also impacts the level of persistence one applies to performing a task as well as increasing expectations and performance itself
- Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2013). Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance. In ANNUAL EDITIONS: Psychology 13/14, Forty-Fourth Edition (pp. 125-130). McGraw-Hill.