Very superstitious

The Shark Worlds came to Kingston last month – not a fish thing, but rather the world championships for the Shark class of sailboat. My friend Martin was competing (his boat name? Cloaca. Martin is a biologist who takes taxonomic accuracy seriously).

As he was recounting some of his adventures, he mentioned that he had done quite well in the preliminary practice race. Memories flooded back from my former life as a sailor: “Did you finish it? Never finish the practice race!”


I explained that it was bad luck, especially if you win the practice race. Better to duck the finish line instead of crossing it. Our friend Chris, another evolutionary biologist, dismissed my advice. What did luck have to do with it? We’re rational scientists, right?

I struggled to explain it. “It’s like wearing the conference T-shirt during the conference.” It marks you as new and vulnerable. And if you do well, it does nothing for your mental game. Why set yourself up to have something to lose before the event even begins?

Chris was not convinced, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since – especially since today is a near-miss Friday the 13th. Can someone be rational and superstitious at the same time?

Animals can be superstitious. Back in the 1940s, B.F. Skinner showed that if you reward pigeons with food at regular intervals (rather than rewarding them based on their actions), you’ll reinforce whatever they happen to be doing at the time1. Skinner wound up with some pretty strange birds:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.

Think you’re different? How often do you press the button at a crosswalk repeatedly while waiting for the light to change? Or do this at the bowling alley? When I showed that picture to my Animal Behaviour class last fall, nearly everyone admitted to it. Rationally, we know that the world doesn’t work that way, but the trouble is we’re good learners – since we’ve had experiences in the past where pressing a button or adjusting our body position to one side had an immediate effect, we keep trying. And if superstition is the capacity to translate prior learning to new situations, it is a rational response.

Of course it’s possible to go too far. But there is real evidence that superstitions work, at least in sport. In a 1981 study, researchers found that superstitious rituals correlate with level of involvement in competition for Canadian basketball players2. More recently, others have tried replacing superstitions with other, more reasonable rituals for basketball players, teaching them to use routines before free throws that are specially designed to help them regulate their level of arousal and enhance concentration – but these routines are no better than superstitions in terms of baskets scored3. Researchers in Germany have even shown that activating superstitious beliefs works for non-athletes too: it can boost our performance on simple tasks like word puzzles and mini-putting, possibly because it enhances our motivation and persistance4.

In Martin’s case, the practice race evidently wasn’t just for practice, since it was included in the scoring for a separate trophy at the Shark regatta. Otherwise, I’d stand my ground that a little superstition isn’t such a bad thing.

Further Reading

1. Skinner. 1948. Superstition in the pigeon. J. Exp. Psychology 38: 168-172.

2. Buhrmann et al. 1981. Superstition among basketball players. J. Sport Behavior 4 :163-174.

3. Foster et al. 2006. The effect of removing superstitious behavior and introducing a pre-performance routine on basketball free-throw performance. J. Applied Sport Psychology 18: 167-171.

4. Damisch et al. 2010. Keep your fingers crossed! Psychological Science 21: 1014-1020.