I Think I Can, I Think I Can….

Most of us are familiar with Watty Piper’s Story, “The Little Engine That Could”. It’s that tale of the  small train engine who is refused help by the larger, more powerful engines but ultimately, and through the power of positive thinking, it’s able to climb the hill and deliver its load to the other side.

We are also very familiar with athletes who follow a specific practice because they believe the ritual or talisman will improve their performance. A few examples are :

  • Baseball – A wad of gum stuck on a player’s hat.
  • Basketball – Bounce the ball before taking a foul shot.
  • Golf – Start only with odd-numbered clubs.
  • Hockey – Tap the goalie on his shin pads before a game.
  • Bowling – Wear the same clothes to continue a winning streak.
  • Tennis – Walk around the outside of the court when switching sides

The number is almost as large as the number of athletes. However, the confidence that can come from such rituals can actually improve performance.

Keep your fingers crossed!: how superstition improves performance.
Damisch L, Stoberock B, Mussweiler T.

Superstitions are typically seen as inconsequential creations of irrational minds. Nevertheless, many people rely on superstitious thoughts and practices in their daily routines in order to gain good luck. To date, little is known about the consequences and potential benefits of such superstitions. The present research closes this gap by demonstrating performance benefits of superstitions and identifying their underlying psychological mechanisms. Specifically, Experiments 1 through 4 show that activating good-luck-related superstitions via a common saying or action (e.g., “break a leg,” keeping one’s fingers crossed) or a lucky charm improves subsequent performance in golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games. Furthermore, Experiments 3 and 4 demonstrate that these performance benefits are produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy. Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance. Finally, Experiment 4 shows that increased task persistence constitutes one means by which self-efficacy, enhanced by superstition, improves performance.

So the next time you see a playoff beard or watch a complicated ritual in the batter’s box, remember that little engine that could.

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