BEHAVIOR
July 26, 2010

Don't Throw Out the Rabbit's Foot: Good Luck Charms May Just Work

When people have good luck charms with them they perform better, a study has found. It's about confidence.

If your coworkers laugh at you for insisting on having a good luck charm with you at all important meetings, tell them there’s scientific evidence that it may actually work. Of course, it may not be that the charm itself harnesses magical powers, but rather it’s how our behavior changes just knowing it is there.

People who had their charms with them during a memory test on the computer performed better than participants who did not. They also rated themselves as more confident, but no less stressed, than people without their charms.

In a series of experiments, German researchers looked at how performance is boosted when participants had some “luck” with them. In one experiment, participants were told to bring their good luck charm to the lab where the study took place, at which point the charms were taken away to be “photographed”. Half of the participants got theirs back and the other half didn’t. People who had their charms with them during a memory test on the computer performed better than participants who did not. They also rated themselves as more confident, but no less stressed, than people without their charms.

In another experiment, the participants were asked to putt golf balls. When the experimenter handed the participants their golf balls, half the time he or she said, “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball.” These people also performed better than those whose balls weren’t dubbed “lucky”.

Even when participants were just told the German equivalent of “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you”, before completing a motor task, they performed better than participants who heard a different phrase which was encouraging but not associated with luck, and those who were simply told to begin the task.

The researchers say that “[a]ctivating a good-luck superstition leads to improved performance by boosting people’s belief in their ability to master a task.” If this is true, does it also hold for real-life situations? The authors say “yes”. They point out the fact that in sports, “[s]uperior teams, as well as superior players within a team, exhibit more superstitious behaviors•this suggests that even in real-life performance situations, superstitious thoughts and behaviors result in performance benefits.” They add that an interesting next study might look at how phrases to avoid bad luck (for example, not opening an umbrella indoors) might influence people’s performance.

So don’t scrap your lucky trinket yet. As long as you believe it’s lucky, it just may be.

The research was carried out by investigators at the University of Cologne in Germany, and published in the July 2010 issue of Psychological Science.

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