Saturday 12 June 2010
As someone who strives – sanctimoniously – to be right, I’m a masochistic fan of research showing that people who are wrong have better lives than I do. This is why I particularly enjoyed a study from the current edition of Psychological Science showing that being superstitious improves performance on a whole string of different tasks.
Now to be honest, I’m always a bit conflicted about this kind of psychology research. On my left shoulder, there is an angel who points out that it’s risky to extrapolate from rarefied laboratory conditions to the real world; that publication bias in this field (the phenomenon where uninteresting findings get left in a desk drawer unpublished forever) is probably considerable; and that it’s uncommon to see a genuinely systematic review of the literature on these kinds of topics, bringing together all the conflicting research in one place. I am not Malcolm Gladwell, if that helps to frame the issue more clearly, and I think his books are a bit silly and overstated.
On my right shoulder, there is a devil who thinks this stuff is all just really cool and fun. He is typing right now.
The researchers did 4 miniature experiments. In the first, they took 28 students, over 80% of whom said they believed in good luck, and randomly assigned them to either a superstition-activated or a control condition. Then they put put them on a putting green. To activate a superstition, for half of them, when handing over the ball the experimenter said: “here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball”. For the other half, the experimenter just said “this is the ball everyone has used so far”. Each participant had 10 goes at putting on the green, trying to get a hole-in-one from a distance of 100 cm: and lo, the students playing with a “lucky ball” did significantly better than the others, with a mean score of 6.42, against 4.75 for the others.
Then they moved on to a second experiment. 51 students were asked to perform a motor-dexterity task, an irritating fiddly perspex game where they had to get 36 little balls into 36 little holes by tilting the box. Beforehand, they were randomly assigned to one of three groups, each hearing a different phrase just before starting. The superstition activator was “I press the thumbs for you”, a German equivalent to the English expression “I keep my fingers crossed”. The two “control” or comparison groups were interesting. One group were told “I press the watch for you”, with the idea that this implied a similar level of encouragement (I’m not so sure about that) and the other were told: “on ‘go’ you go”. As predicted, the participants who were told someone was keeping their fingers crossed for them finished the task significantly faster.
Then things got more interesting, as the researchers tried to unpick why this was happening. They took 41 students who had a lucky charm, and asked them to bring it to the session. It was either kept in the room, or taken out to be “photographed”. Then they were told about the memory task they were due to perform, and asked a whole bunch of questions about confident they felt. The ones with their lucky charm in the room performed better on the memory game than those without, but more than that, they reported higher levels of “self-efficacy”, which was correlated with performance.
Finally, they probed these mechanisms even further. 31 students were asked to bring their lucky charm, it was either taken away or not, and they were given an anagram task. Before starting, they were asked set a goal: what percentage of all the hidden words did they think they could find? Then they began: as expected, participants who had their lucky charm in the room performed better, and reported a higher degree of “self-efficacy” as before. But more than that, people who had their lucky charm in the room set higher goals, and also persisted longer in working on the anagram task.
So there you go. Almost everyone has some kind of superstition (mine is that I should mention I noticed this study through my friends Vaughan Bell and Ed Yongon Twitter). What’s interesting is that superstition works, because it improves confidence, let’s you set higher goals, and encourages you to work harder. In a lab. You now know everything you need to decide if this applies to your life.