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Superstitions Boost Confidence, Performance

Study Shows the Power of Good Luck Charms
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By Courtney Ware
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 16, 2010 -- Don’t throw out that lucky rabbit’s foot or trash your lucky socks. A study shows that believing in a superstition can actually improve your performance on a task by boosting your self-confidence.

It’s a commonly held notion that superstitions are irrational and not logically connected to the outcomes of a situation. But researchers from the University of Cologne in Germany say there are measurable performance benefits to superstitions, such as crossing your fingers or telling someone to “break a leg” for good luck.

Athletes in particular are known to sometimes hold superstitions. For example, Michael Jordan wore his college team shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform and Tiger Woods wears a red shirt on the final round of a tournament, for good luck.

So researchers designed four experiments and recruited 151 university students to test how their belief in luck would influence their ability to perform well in golf, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games.

In the first experiment, students who believed they were putting with a “lucky ball” hit the target more often than students who were told they had the same ball as everyone else.

Researchers told female university students in the second experiment to carefully tilt a plastic tube to place little balls, one by one, into 36 small holes. They used the German expression “I press the thumbs for you” (“I keep my fingers crossed” in English) as a starting signal and timed how quickly the students completed the task. These students finished faster than students who were told that a watch was pressed to indicate when to start, or to just “go.”

The final two experiments focused on more than just whether a superstition could improve performance, but also on what psychologically affected the outcome. Participants who had their own personal good luck charm performed better on a memory game than those whose charm was taken from them. They also reported feeling more confident that they would do well on the memory game. Additionally, while playing an anagram game in the final experiment, the presence of their lucky charm led participants to set higher goals and be more persistent to successfully complete the game.

The research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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