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Sporting superstitions: Why do we have them?

Legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff used to slap his goalkeeper in the stomach before each match. Tennis ace Serena Williams always bounces her ball five times before her first serve. Jennifer Aniston, it is reported, touches the outside of any plane she flies in with her right foot before boarding.

From touching wood for good luck, to walking around ladders to avoid bad luck, we all have little routines or superstitions, which make little sense when you stop to think about them. And they are not always done to bring us luck. I wait until just after the kettle has boiled to pour the water for a cup of tea, rather than pouring just before it boils. I do not know why I feel the need to do this, I am sure it cannot make a difference to the drink.

So, why do I and others repeat these curious habits? Behind the seemingly irrational acts of kettle boiling, ball bouncing or stomach slapping lies something that tells us about what makes animals succeed in their continuing evolutionary struggles.

Repeat behaviour

We refer to something that we do without thinking as being a habit. This is precisely why habits are useful – they do not take up mental effort. Our brains have mechanisms for acquiring new routines, and part of what makes us, and other creatures successful is the ability to create these habits.

Even pigeons can develop superstitious habits, as psychologist B. F. Skinner famously showed in an experiment. Skinner would begin a lecture by placing a pigeon in a cage with an automatic feeder that delivered a food pellet every 15 seconds. At the start of the lecture Skinner would let the audience observe the ordinary, passive behaviour of the pigeon, before covering the box. After fifty minutes he would uncover the box and show that different pigeons developed different behaviours. One bird would be turning counter clockwise three times before looking in the food basket, another would be thrusting its head into the top left corner. In other words, all pigeons struck upon some particular ritual that they would do over and over again.

Skinner's explanation for this strange behaviour is as straightforward as it is ingenious. Although we know the food is delivered regardless of the pigeon's behaviour, the pigeon doesn't know this. So imagine yourself in the position of the pigeon; your brain knows very little about the world of men, or cages, or automatic food dispensers. You strut around your cage for a while, you decide to turn counter clockwise three times, and right at that moment some food appears. What should you do to make that happen again? The obvious answer is that you should repeat what you have just been doing. You repeat that action and – lo! – it works, food arrives.

From this seed, argued Skinner, superstition develops. Superstitions take over behaviour because our brains try and repeat whatever actions precede success, even if we cannot see how they have had their influence. Faced with the choice of figuring out how the world works and calculating the best outcome (which is the sensible rational thing to do), or repeating whatever you did last time before something good happened, we are far more likely to choose the latter. Or to put it another way: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, regardless of the cause. [continue]

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Replies to This Discussion

Cool article. I try to be conscious of the source of any habits I develop. While working, I would make myself take a different route during the week. When I was young, I always dressed starting with my left side for some reason. Made me smile when I realized what I was doing; stopped that immediately. Now I break up any senseless habit I've fallen in to.

There are things that are repetitious for a reason. When I took flying lessons, there's a check list that you get into the habit of doing for safety. No superstition there, just a sensible solution.

Yes, habits are quite good in many ways, because it means you don't have to think about them. For me, typing is almost like an unconscious habit. I don't think about which letters I need to type in order to spell the word. I just think about the word and my fingers take care of the rest. If I try to think about which keys to hit, that slows me down.

 

I don't know if I have a side-preference when dressing. Never thought about it.

 

I used to have some OCD habits when I was younger, but I don't think I assoicated that with any cause and effect, that is to say, any superstitions. I never had a lucky shirt or anything like that.

LOL!

- Put key in

- Put helmet on

- Pull choke

- Start engine

I've been lucky so far, it has always worked for me =)

Hah! I was putting my helmet on the back of my bike. Took off several times without it and finally lost it. Now it sits on the front where I can't miss it. 

Growing up in Illinois, there was no helmet law so drove often without one. Hard habit to break even though I've lived in Michigan, which has a helmet law, for a long time. =)

Now that's lucky!

It's never been the case in Quebec (that I can remember even from the sixties =) I'd do away with a helmet in seconds for short errands in July...

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