Personally, I tend to stray away from superstition where possible. However, there are a few superstition-based-rituals that have been so engrained in my subconscious that I still, to this day, practise them.

The most annoying one is the ‘three-drains’ ritual. Stop me if you’ve already heard of it. If I step on a collection of three drains in the street (joined), then I am in the ‘bad-luck  zone’ and awful things will occur; however, if I step on two drains, it cancels it out the bad luck, and I am fine to go about my business.

Utterly stupid, I know. But what are superstitions, and do they have any tangible effect on the performance of a practitioner?

A recent study by Psychologists Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler of the University of Cologne, empirically tested the effectiveness of superstitious sayings, actions, and charms in a scientific setting. The researchers wished to examine if the belief in these superstitious practises, would in any way improves the effectiveness of the believers. The test was broken down into four micro-tests.

For the first test, the subjects were randomly given either a ‘lucky golf ball’, or a ‘normal’ golf ball, and then given a golfing duty to perform.

In the second test, the subjects were given a cube containing 36 ball-bearings, and 36 holes. The fairly standard motor-dexterity test, in which the subjects must match the balls in the holes, was preceded by one of the researchers letting a random selection of the subjects know that they had done the German equivalent of ‘crossing their fingers’ for them (‘pressing thumbs’ in Germany).

In the third test, the subjects were asked to bring along their own lucky charms. The researchers then took away the charms, claiming that they would ‘photograph’ them for their records. A random 50% selection had their charms returned, and the remaining half had their charms withheld. The subjects were then asked to fill out questionnaires. The questionnaires asked the subjects how confident they were that they would be able to successfully complete their next task. The task in question was a card-based memory game, in which the subjects were asked to attempt to match cards that were faced down.

Finally, the subjects were asked again to fill out a questionnaire, and again to allow the researchers to ‘photograph’ their provided lucky charms. Again, the researchers gave back 50% of the charms, only this time the subjects were given a selection of 8 letters, and were asked to form as many words as they could out of them. In this test, however, the group were also asked to set themselves goals with the anagram.

It’s worth pointing out that the subjects that did not receive the ‘superstionised’ prompts (the lucky ball, the pressed thumbs, or the return of their charms), constitute a ‘control group’. A control group is a standard in scientific testing, allowing a researcherto minimise the influence of other variables when attempting to study a single variable – in this case ‘the effects of superstition on performance.’

Interestingly, the results of all four micro-tests showed that superstition does seem to boost effectiveness in believers. Those with the ‘lucky’ golf balls performed far better than those in the control group. The group that were encouraged with pressed thumbs were far more efficient than those that were not. The final two tests showed that those not in the control group were more confident with both their performance, and in their speculation, and self-set goals.

The test in itself not only shows us that superstition can be activated by either a pre-set belief, but also by outside influence (the pressed thumbs, the golf ball el al). Most interestingly, the test shows us that superstition itself seems to boost performance in believers.

So, what does this say about my drain hopping? Very little annoyingly. That said, the researchers are planning on testing ‘bad-luck’ superstitions next. So maybe I’ll get more joy from that.

Until then, you’ll see me hopping around high streets like a demented human bunny, desperately seeking two-drains.

read ‘Keep your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance‘, via Sage Journals Online, or from your local academic library that stocks the ‘Psychological Science’ journal.

Ken Eakins

About the Author

Ken Eakins is a filmmaker and weird stuff enthusiast from the South of England.

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