Superstition Can Help In High Stakes Situations…Knock On Wood

From Eliott Johnson’s Super Bubble gum ritual to Carlos Quentin's pre-game "aura spray," baseball players are notoriously superstitious. This naturally raises the question of why. In the second part of our conversation with Matthew Huston, a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane,” he provides rational reasons for these irrational beliefs.

Superstitions occur in all facets of society, but they are unusually popular among ballplayers. Is there an explanation for this?

We’re always vying for control over our lives, and when we feel a lack of control we use any means necessary to regain it. Baseball players are superstitious because they have very little control. Even the best ones hit the ball only one in three at-bats. A difference of a millisecond or a millimeter can turn a foul ball into a home run. So they rely on lucky charms and rituals. Notably, players have many more superstitions about batting and pitching than about fielding, where if a ball comes toward you, you’ll usually catch it. 

Is there another example of this link between high-risk profession and superstition?

Commercial fishing is the deadliest job in the nation—you’re working with dangerous equipment in the middle of a rough sea—and so it’s no surprise that fishing has a rich culture of taboos and superstitions. Don’t whistle in the wheelhouse, don’t carry a banana on board, don’t leave port on a Friday, don’t say the word “pig” on a boat. Soldiers and civilians in war zones also rely on magical thinking. A study by Giora Keinan found that during the Gulf War, Israelis in cities at higher risk of Scud missile attacks were more likely to endorse superstitions such as stepping into a bomb shelter with the right foot first.

How come some players are more superstitious than others? Would a scan of Nomar Garciappara (famous for his intricate hitting ritual) look different than a player with no rituals?

On one level it’s just different amounts of brain chemicals, probably low serotonin and high dopamine. On another level, people who feel lack of control or who grew up feeling lack of control turn out to be more superstitious. 

A baseball announcer should never point out when a pitcher is in the middle of throwing a no hitter - at least in my book – or he might jinx him. Logically nothing he says could alter the outcome so why feel this way? What's the purpose? 

Just by chance, almost every no-hitter-in-progress ends up not being a no-hitter. And if you comment on the no-hitter and then it ends, that comment stands out, and garners blame for “tempting fate” and bringing the streak to its demise. There may also be a moral dimension. We see hubris as a punishable offense, and the end of a lucky streak feels like a fitting punishment for having the hubris to note that your team is on its way to a no-hitter. There’s a proverb that goes, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

When does irrational thinking help versus hurt, and vice versa? 

There are all kinds of irrational thinking so I’ll stick to belief in luck. Feeling lucky can help in a situation when you’ve prepared as much as you can and you just need the increased self-confidence and reduced anxiety to apply your capabilities. Superstition can hurt when you rely on luck instead of preparing properly, or it makes you so overconfident that you take crazy risks, or you flip out when something gets in the way of your lucky ritual.

What's the difference between routine, superstition and OCD?

A routine is just any set of behaviors you carry out regularly. For instance, basketball players might bounce the ball three times before taking a free throw. But whereas routines improve behavior by preparing rote muscle movements or by focusing attention, superstitions work by enhancing self-efficacy, and they often involve some element of symbolism and are associated with luck. OCD can involve both routines and superstitions. When your repetitive behaviors become pathological—when they get in the way of your daily life—they’re classified as symptomatic of OCD. Touching your doorknob three times for good luck on the way to work is superstitious, and can even be healthy. Touching it three hundred times is obsessive-compulsive. 

Is it harder to live with a superstitious person? Do they have a harder time socially?

I’ve never tried it, but as long as the person isn’t touching the doorknob three hundred times before leaving the house, it shouldn’t be too big a deal. However, with some forms of magical thinking, you’re actually at a social disadvantage not believing. A recent Pew Research poll, for instance, found that if you want to be elected President of the United States of America, it’s better to admit to having an affair than being an atheist.

Once in a while, I'll make a really positive statement. Then I get a sudden sinking feeling that by saying it out loud I've caused the opposite to happen. To fix this problem I will knock on wood. Is there an explanation for this?

Commenting on good fortune that’s still in progress or that could reverse itself makes us feel like we’ve tempted fate to prove us wrong, as a punishment for hubris. But we feel we can acknowledge our position at the mercy of the gods and appease them by rapping on wood. Personally, I knock on wood. It reduces anxiety, which is an emotional, not a rational response—at least for me, since I don’t believe in magic. But reducing anxiety can be good. So consciously deciding to knock on wood is an instance of what I call the rational use of irrationality. You’re deciding to do something that will have an illogical, emotional effect. 

I've read the playing golf with a "lucky" ball can help your game. Is this true?

It can. In a study conducted by Lysann Damisch, subjects performed ten golf putts. Half the subjects were told that the golf ball was lucky, and these subjects actually sank 35 percent more putts. She did other experiments in which being wished good luck or carrying a lucky charm improved performance on other physical or mental tasks. The mediating factor was a boosted sense of self-efficacy. Feeling like luck was on their side steeled their nerves and helped them perform at their full potential.

Do team rituals like Boston Beards really work on some level?

It’s hard to say whether any particular superstition is at work in any outcome, which is why controlled experiments like those of Lysann Damisch are so important, but it’s possible that by changing their mental state those beards helped the Sox win the World Series.

Why are players superstitious about talking about their superstitions?

Calling something a superstition may sound dismissive, and they don’t want to break their spell. If you call your routine nonsense magic, it may offend the gods. They might also not want to think too hard about how they’re at the mercy of luck. They want to feel in control, so they call their behavior “routines.” And then there’s the social element. Superstition smacks of silly irrationality. These are serious athletes, and it’s not cool to cross your fingers in front of the guys. It seems too frivolous. And maybe a bit crazy. 

Why do superstitions manifest themselves in such personal and unique forms? For one guy it will be food, for another it will he about his underwear, for another guy it's about nobody speaking to him on the day he pitches?

Some superstitions are cultural—crossing fingers, knocking on wood—but others are picked up individually. If your team happens to win a few games while you’re wearing a particular shirt, you might call it your lucky shirt and keep wearing it. 

Which will breed even more luck, right?

Thinking you’re lucky improves a sense of self-efficacy and makes you more active in your engagement with challenges, thus making you more likely to succeed. Assuming the costs of failure aren’t too high, belief in luck becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Image credit: Sonja Calovini/Shutterstock

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