Why Superstition May Actually Work

As you’ve probably heard, this month’s Friday the 13th coincides with a full moon, something that won’t happen again for another 35 years...

Why Superstition May Actually Work

As you’ve probably heard, this month’s Friday the 13th coincides with a full moon, something that won’t happen again for another 35 years. This strange mixture of lunar madness and bad luck has left many to wonder if something peculiar might happen today. But those are just superstitions, right?

Truth be told, there’s more to superstition than you’d probably think.

Superstition: Surprisingly Effective

In 2010, a study published by researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany revealed that superstitions, including things like good luck charms and rituals, actually work, to a point. This isn’t necessarily because they hold any supernatural power, of course. Rather, the superstitions seem to augment self-confidence, acting as a placebo. This, in certain cases, improves success.

“… activating good-luck-related superstitions via a common saying or action (e.g., “break a leg,” keeping one’s fingers crossed) or a lucky charm improves subsequent performance in golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games.

Furthermore…these performance benefits are produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy.” – Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance (PDF)

In one of the experiments, the researchers tested their subjects’ golfing abilities, and found that when provided with a so-called “lucky” golf ball, they outperformed those who were provided a “normal” golf ball. Simply the idea that the ball was lucky improved their results.

In another experiment, subjects were told to bring personal lucky charms with them prior to taking a memory and anagram test. Those who had their lucky charms taken away before the test performed worse than those who were allowed to keep them.

In either case, the lucky items had a measurable effect on their confidence levels, and therefore impacted their performance.

Why Superstition May Actually Work

Fate Up Against Your Will

While superstitions may work, they don’t have to.

Researchers at Kansas State University conducted another study in 2010 that examined superstitious behavior itself, and why we believe. They narrowed it down to a few things:

“After performing two studies, the researchers developed three reasons for superstitious behavior: individuals use superstitions to gain control over uncertainty; to decrease feelings of helplessness; and because it is easier to rely on superstition instead of coping strategies.” – Insight offered into superstitious behavior

Instead of relying on superstition, the researchers suggest taking ownership of what we can control, stating that “sometimes we use bad luck to let ourselves off the hook.” But superstition may also take away our victories, if we give credit to fate and not ourselves.

Why Superstition May Actually Work

Superstition, then, turns out to be a double-edged sword. It may help us by relieving anxiety and boosting our confidence in uncertain situations, but it may also hinder us, as seen in the third experiment by the University of Cologne.

Do you believe in any superstitions? Have you ever knocked on wood, or carried a lucky item?



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