Pace athletes often turn to superstitions – whether that be an object or a routine – to bring them luck during a game. The question is: do these superstitions actually do anything? And why do people use them in the first place? 

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” While many understand that their “good-luck charms” won’t have any effect on their actual game play, they continue to abide by them. Why is this? 

Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth Jane Risen explains how people can understand that their superstitions make no sense, but still act on them. Professor Risen calls upon a dual model of thinking advocated by Professor emeritus of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University David Kahneman and Professor of behavioral economics and decision making at Yale School of Management Shane Frederick in 2005. They establish that people think in two ways: “fast” and “slow.” When people think fast, they use their intuition and past experiences to make judgments; however, when people think slow, they use logic to correct their fast thoughts. Professor Risen argues that “people can recognize—in the moment—that their belief does not make sense, but act on it nevertheless.” Professor Risen refers to this phenomenon as acquiescence. Many people understand that their superstitions aren’t based on facts, but bypassing “slow” thinking allows them to stand by their superstition. 

While it may seem like a pair of lucky socks or a certain warm-up routine won’t have an impact on a person’s game, upper school students argue that it brings them confidence and security in their ability. 

“It makes me play better, just because it’s routine,” said junior Libby Jonas. “If I don’t do it, I’ll fail,” said sophomore Kate Cunningham. A 2010 study on superstitions and their effects on performance posits that “activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.” 

In other words, superstitions give a false sense of control, lowering anxiety and boosting the chances of success. “If it makes them feel better, then it’s probably going to improve their performance,” said sophomore Marco Juarez.

As far as what superstitions people rely on, upper school students had a variety of answers. “I drink a Coke,” said freshman Ford Jordan. “I go through a throwing routine,” said Freshman Dylan Nelson. “It gets me warmed up.” Junior Uma Graz “touches her earrings.” “I always rest my headcover on the bag,” said Sophomore Ben Ellner.

Hockey player Patrick Roy defends his goal after his pre-game routine to make it “smaller.” Photo: Sports Illustrated

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