Works like magic

The New York Times has a short but thought-provoking piece on the benefits of supersition and magical thinking. This part particularly caught my eye:

For instance, in one study led by the psychologist Lysann Damisch of the University of Cologne, subjects were handed a golf ball, and half of them were told that the ball had been lucky so far. Those subjects with a “lucky” ball drained 35 percent more golf putts than those with a “regular” ball.

The results are from a 2010 study that looked at the effect of ‘lucky charms’ and good luck superstitions on performance, finding that they genuinely increase our ability to complete self-directed tasks through increased self-confidence.

It’s a fascinating result in light of the typical skeptical response that ‘lucky charms don’t work’ because in many cases they do. Importantly, however, they have their effect on tasks in which our own skill plays a significant part rather than those where random outcome is the prime factor.

In other words, they’d help you at poker but not at roulette.

And if you want to know more about how we acquire supersitions, Tom’s recent article for BBC Future breaks it down.

Link to NYT ‘In Defense of Superstition’.
Link to BBC Future article on supersitions acquisition.
Link to locked study.


  1. Ronan
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink


  2. Posted April 11, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Fascinating. I wonder if bad omens hurt performance?

  3. James Galan
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    It’s known as the placebo effect.

  4. John Wolf
    Posted April 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Is the BBC Future link what you intended? It links to an article about names and faces, not much to do with superstition…

  5. Posted April 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I love the placebo effect. I use it all the time and it actually works, as long as I believe it works. But eventually I lose the belief and it no longer works. The trick is to make yourself believe.

  6. Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    This is a cool finding, but I’ve been unable to replicate it in a fairly large study with U.S. students (unpublished observation, obviously). Perhaps a cultural difference (her subjects were German)?

    Although the placebo effect is powerful, the Damisch study shows fairly large (up to 20%) increases in performance on objective tasks (e.g. golfing) with a simple superstition prompt. If superstition was really so powerful on objective tasks, wouldn’t we have noticed this before? I’m sure you can believe yourself to be a better golfer, but upon reflection it seems somewhat implausible that this would improve your actual golf score. I’m anxious and curious to see if this will be replicated or if it turns out to be statistical noise.

  7. Iannis
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of the way artists used to point to Muses directing their work..

    Dr_Slug why didn’t you publish your work? It would make this study look more like the false positive that probably is!

    • Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      Ever try publishing a negative result in a psych journal? It’s not easy. The onus really ends up on the researcher with the negative result to prove that they did every last thing exactly right.

      In the case of this effect, the problem is further complicated by the difference in participant populations: I had U.S. college students, Damisch et al. had German college students. It may be simply a cultural effect, then (e.g. if U.S. students are simply less prone to believe in superstition). Without access to a German population to study, my negative result ends up feeling rather incomplete.

      Also, to be completely fair to Damisch et al., they replicated their result in 6 (i think) different experiments with different convergent measures. I have failed to observe effects in only 2 of their 6 experiments (golfing and boggle). I feel that the literature on placebo and belief suggests that it can not have such a strong effect on objective performance measures, but I do need to build up my evidence a bit more to make that case well.

  8. vieome
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Belief is everything. And superstition is merely a belief prop.

  9. Pia Marjukka Laasone
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Dear Magical Thinkers,homo sapien sapien like Nigers around the world somewhere in Africa lineartiming.people who have reed too much liberature,Wirginia W.Keats,Edgar Allan Poe dont remember all too much.I know what is art and Thrue Science. Fictionism and Evidental Science.I have no harm att all people who have 7ome illness in head like braindamage dont nessessa in brains realize nothing.Scitsofrenia Paranoia is sikhead but my 5 Frends about medicins like Yuri Rosenfelt,Jarmo Laitinen clinist,Hannu Saloheimo,Hannu Naukkarinen,Tuija Saloheimo all they can make ordes about what sikhead must take.I dont understand and in Dochtor Jarmo Laitinens own working clinist once I asket how you can make orders about something 20medicins to lunatic and amazing what hes smiling look and answer goes oh,my God like I have done this jod about 20years.I ask we speek like whatewer

    • James Galan
      Posted April 20, 2012 at 1:57 am | Permalink

      What is your problem? Are you having a really bad day? Your use of the n word was totally unwarranted. I hope your problem is only because you forgot to take your medicine. If that is not the issue I highly recommendyou see a shrink.

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26,838 other followers