Sunday, June 27, 2010

Science Sunday: 'I Ain't Superstitious, But A Black Cat Just Cross My Trail'

It's easy to dismiss superstitions as silly -- whether they involve black cats, broken mirrors, ladders, salt or knocking on wood -- but a scientist has found that they can improve performance in a variety of physical and mental tasks.

It all has to do with self confidence. In other words, boosting a person's faith in their own abilities and giving them the edge they need to excel, explains Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Yong outlines an experiment that Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne
performed. She asked 51 students to complete a dexterity challenge: Get 36 ball bearings into a grid of 36 holes as quickly as possible by tilting the cube they sat in. If she told them to start by saying either "On 'go' you go" or "I press the watch for you," they took between 5 and 6 minutes to finish. But if she said "I press the thumb for you," which is the German equivalent of crossing one's fingers, they took around 3 minutes.

In another study, Jamisch asked 41 students to bring a lucky charm with them which she then took from them to photograph. In some cases, she brought the charm back and in others she left it in another room, citing problems with the camera. The students then completed a seemingly unrelated memory game where they had to match 18 pairs of face-down cards by turning over two at a time. The volunteers who had their lucky charms did much better than those who did not.

Before they started on the game, the recruits all completed a questionnaire. Their answers later revealed that those who were given back their charms didn’t feel any less anxious about the game. But they did feel more confident and their degree of extra optimism accounted for much of their extra success at the memory game.

In a final experiment, Jamisch repeated the lucky charm set-up with a couple of slightly different details.

This time the recruits had to make as many words as possible from a set of eight letters and also had to set themselves a goal. As before, those who held their lucky charms felt more confident and scored better, identifying an average of 46 words compared to only 31 deciphered by their mascot-less peers.

Notes Yong:

"These experiments are remarkably consistent in showing that a variety of superstitious beliefs have a positive effect on a variety of tasks, both physical and mental. They work whether the superstition is activated by someone else (as in the case of the crossed fingers) or if it’s something unique to the individual (as in the case of the lucky charms). And they work because superstitions, by prompting feelings of good luck, can make people more confident in themselves, prompting them to try harder and aim higher at the things they do."

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