June 12th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, irrationality research | 61 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
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real world; that publication bias in this field (the phenomenon where uninteresting findings get left in a desk drawer unpublished forever) is probably considerable; and that it’s uncommon to see a genuinely systematic review of the literature on these kinds of topics, bringing together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.

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61 Responses

  1. uggi said,

    June 18, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    This doesn’t actually sound like superstition – more like the effect of encouragement, already documented in other studies. The idea that someone else wants you to do well is inspiring, and makes you try harder.

    As for good luck charms… well, that’s just a different shaped teddy bear, really, isn’t it? ;p

  2. Stitcheroo said,

    June 19, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Thank you uggi.

  3. irishaxeman said,

    June 21, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    We have to assume none of the tiny sample were golfers – as a reasonable golfer would expect to hole more than 8 out of 10 from a metre away on a flat plane. What was not controlled for as far as I can see (assuming putter is the same as is the ball throughout) is grip/face/target alignment, itself a product of skill and visuomotor ability. With such a small sample you only need a small bias in these to produce a significant result, not withstanding different levels of task anxiety and pre-existing history of self efficacy. Was there standardisation of these factors? Were there practice trials?
    However I will note that female golfers of my acquaintance are known to accuse golf balls of bias (as in ‘you naughty ball’).

  4. Stitcheroo said,

    June 22, 2010 at 8:27 am

    @irishaxeman give some of the reasons to exclude this test. The possibility of a few out of the sample (of 14, not 28) being golfers would skew the results over such a small number of shots. To then say that the results are confirmed by “all the other significant results” is a leap of faith. In any case, just saying “you believe in luck” does not mean that you believe that the ball is lucky. I play sports and you may say you have a lucky ball or perform some ritual but this is short lived even when affecting performance. When it actually comes to it you forget about that and concentrate on technique or the opposition. Rafael Nadal is a good example, he has rituals at the start of the match that get him in to the right frame of mind (call it superstition if you will) and this ensures that he gets off to a good start. Even if he says he believes in “good luck”, he really knows that the rituals are there to get him focussed to enable him to concentrate on the game. As I said before, there are many factors that come into play.
    And irishaxeman, I’ve played golf with some male golfers who have some pretty weird rituals or were you just trying to be provocative?

  5. irishaxeman said,

    June 22, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Luck is merely a description of unplanned consequences, and as such ‘exists’. Superstition has been adequately explained by behavioural and evolutionary psychology.
    And bad design is bad design.
    No I have never heard a male golfer call a golf ball naughty. I have heard many males use other descriptions, often ending in ‘’.

  6. spotthelemon said,

    June 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    The most suprising thing about this research is that anyone would be remotely surprised by it. It’s essentially a variation on the placebo effect but with lucky charms (or procedures) instead of sugar pills.

  7. H. E. Pennypacker said,

    June 23, 2010 at 10:27 am


    Yes, we just have to assume that those people who did better in the golf task aren’t golfers. I think it’s a relatively safe assumption if we’re willing to assume that the people doing this research aren’t stupid and actually have some training in how to do research. I don’t know them so they might be stupid and have no training in research and accidentally assigned a lot of golfers to the experimental condition. But it’s quite a safe bet that they didn’t. On a serious note, one way they could have eliminated this issue would have been to use the same participants in the lucky ball and neutral conditions, but that solution would have had its own complications.


    You said: “To then say that the results are confirmed by ‘all the other significant results’ is a leap of faith”. I have to disagree with that quite strongly. Replication is a foundation of experimentation. The golf experiment on its own would not have been publishable, even the authors treat it as a preliminary finding. They then do variations on the experiment showing the same effect in each. This is the exact opposite of taking a leap of faith, it is to subject a hypothesis to systematic inquiry and is the gold standard in any field of science.

    As a disclaimer I should say that I’m not affiliated with this research in any way, and know nothing about research into superstition and have no strong opinions on that literature. I’m just trying to defend what seems on the surface like a relatively solid piece of research against some far fetched critique.

  8. thetallerpaul said,

    June 30, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Methodological issues aside this seems like a lot of fuss over a nothing study about the placebo effect of encouragement. Wherever this comes from ( external, superstition, replicable statistical proof) it helps people perform. If you are superstitious keep doing what you need to do as long as you understand it’s not magic. An interesting test would be with a group of ‘rational’ people who were told that statistically you have a very small or high chance of success in the test exercise. My hypothesis is that the ‘rational’ respond in a similar way to encouragement or discouragement.

  9. Stella said,

    July 10, 2010 at 2:47 am

    Why does superstition have a deja vu quality about it? It seems that people talk about superstition from their predefined and possibly prejudiced point of view, pushing out opinions without taking in new information. It is almost a defense reaction.

    It is natural for humans to be superstitious. For survival it is better to believe something bad is coming down and try and escape or defend yourself. If you are wrong you may seem silly, but if the crackling twig is a predatory creature then you are right. Being wrong in interpreting situations is far worse than ignoring a suspicion that cannot be supported by facts.

    Recognising a superstitious response is helpful and should allow people to teach thme to understand and learn from their instinctive behaviours and not try to ignore them.

    In the test conditions provided the subjects were put into a competitive situation. The instinct would be to stay and compete where you saw that you had an advantage, or to hide or withdraw where you perceived your chances were reduced. I think the tests were valid and maybe need expanding or more interpretation.

  10. jjad said,

    July 12, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    So the lucky charm trick works? Yes, but the reason could be because people who have their precious charms taken from them to be ‘photographed’ may be worried about what is happening to it. Where has it gone? Will it be OK? What if it gets lost? This is a possible reason why these people felt less confident and did worse than those with their charms.

  11. cw37209 said,

    December 22, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    “…superstition works, because it improves confidence, let’s you set higher goals, and encourages you to work harder.”

    To be most credible, scientists should not only be right, scientifically, but should be well-written. That said, a gentle reminder: the verb “lets” should not include an apostrophe.