How Superstitions Really Work

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According to a Gallup poll, almost 50 percent of Americans are superstitious, believing that certain rituals, like wearing unmatched socks, will influence the likelihood of an event, like pitching a no-hitter.  Yet few people—or polls—attempt to determine exactly what force connects such rituals with such outcomes.

Until now, that is.  In a 2010 paper entitled “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” researchers Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler argue that not only do superstitions give people a sense of control in chaotic situations, but also that superstitions create directly observable performance improvements.  In one experiment, twenty-eight college students were asked to make ten attempts to putt a golf ball. A pretest showed that more than 80% of them believed in good luck, so while handing the ball over to the participants, the experimenter said, “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball” (which experimenters dubbed the superstition-activated condition) or “This is the ball everyone has used so far” (which experimenters dubbed the control condition). Results showed that subjects who’d been given a “lucky ball” performed better than subjects given a “normal” ball.  In another experiment reported in the same paper, when subjects were allowed to perform a task in the presence of a lucky charm they’d brought with them from home, their performance was better than those whose lucky charms were removed while they were performing the task.  The subjects who were allowed to keep their lucky charms with them also reported a higher sense of self-efficacy. Anxiety levels were identical between the two groups, however.

The researchers then performed another experiment. The same subjects with and without their lucky charms were asked to work anagram problems.  Researchers again found those subjects who were allowed to keep their lucky charms with them performed better—and this time they identified the reason:  the increased sense of self-efficacy experienced by the subjects who had their lucky charms with them led to them to persist in trying to solve the anagrams longer. In other words, when it comes to tasks whose outcome depends on our performance, believing that some other power is helping us actually does help us—not because such external powers exist, but because our belief in them enhances our confidence, which translates into real-world differences in persistence.

This effect may be more important and more widespread than many of us may realize. One area in which it may have particular relevance, for example, is alcoholism.  Alcoholics Anonymous may increase the likelihood of long-term abstinence, but if so no one has yet to show how or why.  Members are taught that they’re powerless against alcohol themselves and so must rely on a higher power to find the strength to resist the urge to drink—and many if not most members credit their higher power as the reason for their abstinence.

But is it? A minority of AA members don’t actually believe in God and are often told to turn over their addiction to whatever higher power they can believe in.  Anecdotally at least, these people are just as often successful as people who believe the higher power helping them to not drink is God.  One wonders, then, if the results from the studies I mentioned above come into play here.  Might  AA be successful, at least partly, not because a higher power is helping its members to remain abstinent but because the belief that a higher power is helping them to remain abstinent helps them to remain abstinent?

Which raises the intriguing possibility that any belief, whether true or not, which increases our confidence might have the same power to get us what we want when the outcome depends on our own performance.  Prayer in any religion, then, might be effective not because it actually invokes a supreme being or even a mystic law, but because it invokes our belief in those things, invokes a sense that we have an “ace in the hole,” which then provides us the confidence to perform better, to keep trying, and to remain optimistic.

A belief in a force external to ourselves that can be invoked to help us may not be merely comforting, then. It may be a powerful psychological lever we can pull to access forces within ourselves that actually affect our ability to achieve what we want—even if our belief is incorrect.

Which raises a troubling question: what if our belief is incorrect? Should we care? Should we pursue the truth even if it may mean forfeiting not just a comforting notion but a notion that may help us succeed in life? What do readers think?

Next Week: How To Get Out Of A Funk



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  • Alex, this sounds like the phenomenon we call “self-fulfilling prophecy.” For better or worse, we chose behaviors that are consistent with our beliefs, reducing cognitive dissonance. Or is it more like the powerful placebo effect, where real physiological changes take place just because the subject believes it will be so? I think it is important to question our beliefs and to be open to objective truths. The AA formula is based on the higher power concept. I’ll bet another formula could be just as effective, and more inclusive. But until we figure out to harness the benefits of lucky balls and sugar pills, maybe we should hang on to them.

    Janet: I think it’s more akin to the placebo effect, but has elements of the self-fulfilling prophecy effect as well.


  • Unfortunately, supporting belief in some higher power, while perhaps marginally beneficial to some individuals, carries enormous human costs to the world at large.

    Stefany: With that I agree.


  • Regarding your questions, I have heard this dilemma between truth and comfort phrased as: “Is it better to be Socrates dissatisfied or a satisfied pig?” When in college, I wore my “lucky hat” while taking finals, but I saw this as a comfort ritual rather than the hat having any mysterious power to help me. So I would advise people to keep their comfort rituals but to see them as such.

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  • Like Janet, “I think it is important to question our beliefs and to be open to objective truths.”

    I do not think the belief dividend must be lost by questioning our beliefs. What if we could simply become aware that believers succeed more often because they are persistent due to their commitment to the cause/belief (albeit a possibly false cause)? That the key to success is persistence, and belief in a successful outcome.

    Arthur Boorman’s weight-loss video recently went viral—he was an obese former paratrooper who subscribed to a power yoga program to rehabilitate himself. At a low moment he asked the program’s creator, “What if I can’t do it?” The man answered, “But what if you can?”

    It is the belief component that needs to be raised, the belief in oneself, or self-confidence. The adherence to Churchill’s, “Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty …”

    Success is getting up one more time than you fall.

  • I also have superstitions, even if for many years I was reluctant to admit it. Now I feel more aware of myself, and I consider that superstitions could be useful in some situations, considering them either as a placebo effect or elements of self-fulfilling prophecy. The difference is in how someone views own superstitions and in general where his/her locus of control is. Because good effects appear after acting towards obtaining something, not by waiting for something to happen.

  • @Stephany and @Alex, I would argue that it is not the belief in a higher power that in itself is necessary harmful or dangerous but the desire to impose that same belief on others and to insist that one’s belief is the TRUTH to the exclusion of all others.

  • This is a beautiful example of a non-medical related placebo effect!!

    We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss placebo effects in medicine. Just because the effect is not related to the actual active ingredient in the pill, does not mean there is no effect at all. Only that in most cases we don’t measure this effect any more as most trials nowadays do not have a non-placebo arm included …

  • MBSR might well be a useful method to put together honesty and truth along with belief (in the power of the self.)

    Marc: What is MBSR?


  • Hi, Alex. I am persuaded that what you call “the intriguing possibility that any belief, whether true or not, which increases our confidence might have the same power to get us what we want” is, in fact, the way achievement works for most people.

    The troubling question this raises for me, however, is how are we to close the gap between the efficacy of people who possess such beliefs and those who do not? I am sure you are familiar with the research that suggests many depressed people have a far more accurate view of reality than do non-depressed people. Thus, we find ourselves in a situation in which the people who see reality most clearly are disadvantaged relative to people who are armored against self-doubt with their belief in a higher power of some sort—whether it be a lucky charm or a religious belief.

    Now, I’m not asserting that all people who see reality clearly are depressed, but I do think there is a certain psychological liability to seeing too much, too early (meaning before tools to grapple with it are readily available). And yet these are very people we wish we had listened to AFTER the bubble (any bubble) bursts. How do we grant greater legitimacy to reality-based perspectives? Is there any way to submit belief-based confidence to more rigorous reality testing than we do?

    rdp: Actually, I think there is. I talk about it in my upcoming book.


  • A quick Google indicates that MBSR is mindfulness-based stress reduction.

  • This supports the notion that thinking positively instead of negatively produces a greater likelihood of success.

    We’re given a lucky ball? Well, then, we might not really believe it’s lucky, but we don’t necessarily disbelieve it, either. Maybe we have a better chance now of sinking it in the hole?

    As Janet said, the self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I remember reading about scientific research showing that when one thinks a thought, a groove representing that thought is created in the brain. The more one thinks the thought, the stronger that groove, or pathway, becomes.

    Like water trickling across a patch of earth, it makes a little impression that becomes greater and greater as the trickle, or thought, repeats.

    Over time, the slight groove made by a trickle grows deeper; rainwater falling around begins to be channeled into the groove, which eventually grows into a river, perhaps even a river in a canyon.

    These become our habitual thoughts. They might be positive; they might be negative.

    Divert the water, however, and a new path is created. Divert the thought, and create a new, perhaps more positive, one.

    The belief is that this process makes it possible for us to rewire our brains.

    What we think affects what we do, and even HOW we do.

  • A friend who is a psychiatrist specializing in addiction once explained to me that AA works because it teaches members to substitute a beneficial addiction for a detrimental one. AA members frequently say they “need a meeting.” In other words, they have replaced their craving for alcohol with a craving for AA. While many AA members believe in God, and attribute their abstinence to belief in that “higher power,” the non-believers apparently are closer to the truth. AA itself is the “higher power” that helps those who believe in it free themselves from a harmful addiction.

    Although studies affirm the efficacy of this approach, it does raise questions. I have known a few AA members who display the same fanatical zeal for AA that I’ve seen in evangelical Christians. And while the AA addiction has clear benefits, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of addiction. But as medical science has yet to solve that problem, AA seems to be the best available stopgap.

    As for superstition, its pervasiveness suggests that humans are hard-wired for it. That may have conferred an advantage to our ancestors, perhaps by encouraging social cohesion. Or else it’s a side effect of some other mental adaptation that conferred an advantage. Either way, we’re probably stuck with it. The best we can do is to be aware of it, so we can limit the ability of demagogues and hucksters to exploit it adversely.

  • Please don’t perpetuate the notion that the efficacy of AA has been established in scientific studies. This is simply not the case.

    Margo: I stand corrected and made the correction in the post.


  • Alex,
    Would you consider chanting the daimoku to also be similar to a placebo effect?

    AP: I’m open to being proved wrong, but my experience with the practice so far has me thinking the answer to your question is yes with respect to its ability to affect outcomes. I think something else is going on with respect to its ability to produce wisdom, however.


  • I think it may be incorrect to say that a lucky charm gives one more confidence in ones abilities. The effect is probably real, but the explanation may not be accurate.

    (I believe the effect is real, even if I didn’t have any “scientific proof.” Please read below for the reason why I think so…)

    My take—

    1. Humans look for patterns and effects of factors on an outcome. They know there are too many factors (known and unknown) to be able to control. So saying something is lucky means that some of the factors have been “taken care of already.”

    2. (Following from above argument) Given that some of the “unknown factors” may be taken care of, one can focus more on the task at hand, and be less anxious about success/failure. (One could say that this is same as providing one with “positive thinking.”)

    The above meshes well with the thoughts in the Bhagavad Gita and Hinduism in general (whose philosophy is shared in Buddhism to a large degree, I believe). The Gita’s single most well-known verse says that one should do one’s duty/work without attachment or worrying about the outcome.


    “…Acting, or doing one’s duties in life as per his/her dharma, or duty, without attachment to results—a sort of constant sacrifice of action to the Supreme. It is action done without thought of gain…”

    P.S. I have been enjoying your blog posts for a couple of years now. Looking forward to your book. Thank you.

  • Regarding the Bhagavad Gita—I highly recommend this podcast (actually recording of lectures). I myself have been listening to this speaker for last 4 years now, and wait for the new recordings to be posted online.

    Here is the link to the (first) lecture on karma Yoga—

    “Verse II.47: Your right is for action alone, never for the results. Do not become the agent of the results of action. May you not have any inclination for inaction.”