Do Good-Luck Charms Really Work?

Do Good-Luck Charms Really Work?
I would never call myself superstitious by nature, but there are certain things I do (like kiss my fingertips while going through a yellow light) and don't do (like walk under ladders) that might suggest otherwise. Most people don't admit to being superstitious, lest others think they're foolish. But according to a 2008 ScienceDaily story about superstitions and decision making, businesses across the United States lose an average of $800 to $900 million on Friday the 13th. I suspect the reasoning behind that is similar to my own when I avoid ladders: we don't necessarily think something bad's going to happen, but why take the risk?

I don't know why we're so embarrassed about superstitions, considering how many prominent figures in society, particularly sports stars, are so open about their own. Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher admitted in a 2009 New York Daily News interview that he keeps a small gnome in his locker for good luck. Hockey players and fans grow "playoff beards" during Stanley Cup playoffs, forgoing the razor to decrease their chances of defeat. And I bet if you poll your friends, at least a few will admit to keeping lucky trinkets around on the days they need them most. But do these good-luck rituals and charms amount to much more than superstition? Do they really work?

The Power of Charms and Crossed Fingers
A study published in the June 2010 issue of Psychological Science actually found that in some situations, all that finger crossing and those rabbits' feet and special socks can make a positive difference. Researchers at the University of Cologne had twenty-eight students participate in four experiments designed to test whether superstitions related to good fortune-saying, "Break a leg," or telling them a certain object is notoriously lucky-have the desired effect. In the first experiment, participants trying to hit a golf ball into a hole were 35 percent more successful when using a ball researchers told them was lucky. Further tests showed that the performance increase was related to a boost in confidence as a result of the supposedly lucky object. "Activating a superstition boosts participants' confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance," the researchers concluded.

This wasn't the first evidence to suggest that good-luck charms are more than just tokens. In his book, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, Stuart A. Vyse discusses research into Canadian school-age athletes' superstitions. The researchers, Hans Buhrmann and Maxwell Zaugg, found that the more successful players and teams were also more superstitious, relying on good-luck actions like stacking hands, giving scorers high-fives, and sporting lucky items of clothing on game day. It's hard to tell what came first-the success or the superstition-but it's clear that one influences the other when it comes to performance.

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When the Luck Runs Out
So, does this mean we should run out and play the lottery if we've got four-leaf clovers or rabbits' feet lying around? Unfortunately, good-luck charms don't work universally. Their power comes out when we actually have control over the outcome of a situation, like before a big game or test. Believing that another force is acting in our favor, be it via an object or via a simple act like crossing our fingers, actually makes us set goals higher and try harder in action, or so the University of Cologne researchers believe. But when our own performance has nothing to do with the outcome, such as when we're betting on horses or playing the lottery, good-luck charms don't have any effect.

Of course, that's only scientifically speaking. We wouldn't consider certain socks or figurines lucky charms unless they'd proven themselves worthy of the title in the past, right? In addition, there's a danger to relying too much on good-luck charms: If you think success will come to you only if you wear your lucky shirt or have your lucky gnome on hand, what happens when you're without those things, for whatever reason? The lack of good-luck charms could have the opposite effect, prompting a drop in confidence before you've even attempted victory. As long as you don't believe winning depends solely on a lucky trinket, keeping one on hand before a big test or game obviously can't hurt, and may even help you perform better. But as for slot machines and lotto tickets, leave the rabbits' feet and four-leaf clovers at home. They may boost self-efficacy, and therefore performance, but they're not exactly miracle workers. With or without them, your chances are the same-sadly, slim to none.

Originally posted on DivineCaroline by Vicki Santillano


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