How Superstition Works

Uncertainty is an integral part of most sports. In basketball, the best professional players make only half their shots from the field. Quarterbacks in the National Football League complete, on average, only 61 percent of their passes. Because the motivation to win or perform well is quite strong, it is not surprising that athletes resort to magic in an attempt to alter these percentages. Interestingly, superstitions within a particular sport are generally restricted to the least-certain activities. George Gmelch, an anthropologist and former professional baseball player, noted that the most capricious parts of the game are batting and pitching. Because winning depends on scoring more runs than the opposing team, a pitcher can perform very well and yet lose the game, or can give up several runs and win. A great pitch can be hit out of the park, and a bad one can become a crucial third strike. In batting, a 30 percent success rate makes one a “premier player,” whereas 26 percent is only average. In contrast, fielding is a more reliable enterprise. Infielders have approximately three seconds to prepare for a ball hit toward them, and outfielders have even more time. Few things can intervene to alter the ball’s trajectory from bat to glove. As a result, when the ball is hit toward a fielder, the player successfully catches it or throws the batter out an average of 97 percent of the time. In the “safer waters” of the playing field, there is little need for magic.

A group of studies of Canadian scholastic athletes represents the best systematic investigations of superstition in sport. Hans Buhrmann and Maxwell Zaugg found that among basketball players at the junior high school through university levels, success breeds superstition. Starters, presumably the better players on a team, were more superstitious than nonstarters, and teams with better win-loss records were more superstitious than their less fortunate competitors. In a second study, the same researchers identified the most popular superstitions among scholastic basketball players. Free-throw rituals were particularly popular, as were various practices regarding dress. It is interesting to note that, consistent with the differing socialization of boys and girls, female basketball players were more likely to believe that dressing well is important to success; whereas males more often put their faith in dressing sloppily. When the sloppy dressers are combined with the neat dressers, we find that 86 percent of the boys and 90 percent of the girls made special sartorial efforts of one type or another.

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(Adapted from Buhrmann, Brown, and Zaugg, 1982

In a comparison of several college sports, Jane Gregory and Brian Petrie found more superstition among participants in team sports, such as basketball, ice hockey, and volleyball, than among individual-sport athletes, such as swimmers and tennis players. The authors attributed this result to the social transmission of superstitious beliefs among the members of sports teams. This notion is further supported by the popularity of group superstitions among team-sport players.

Although many of the magical beliefs held by athletes are purely individual, the world of sport is also famous for its group or team superstitions. In baseball, it is widely believed that, if a pitcher has held the opposing team hitless, it is bad luck to mention the "no-hitter" in the dugout during the game. Some say the best way to avoid "jinxing" the pitcher is to stay away from him altogether and keep quiet. The Connecticut College women’s basketball team has a group practice that is believed to bring good luck: when they join hands before the start of a game, the players break out of the huddle with a shout of "Together!" This cheer is never used at the beginning of the second half or at any other point in a game, and new players must be educated in its use when they join the team.

Finally, Gregory and Petrie discovered a unique aspect of superstition in the game of hockey. Most superstitious beliefs in sport involve either personal superstitions aimed at improving individual performance or group superstitions directed toward team success. All players participate equally and no one is singled out—except in hockey. Success in ice hockey is highly dependent on the performance of a single player: the goalie. The hockey goalie’s sole function is to minimize the opposing team’s score by stopping or deflecting every shot the opposing team makes into the goal. It is a very difficult position to play, and a talented goalie is a highly valued member of the team. Not surprisingly, Gregory and Petrie found that a great number of hockey superstitions involved the goalie. For example, players often believe it is important to let the goalie go out on the ice first, and many players slap the goalie’s pads for luck. Like the no-hitter in baseball, team members avoid mentioning a shutout to the goalie before the end of the game.

College Students and Exams

As someone who regularly teaches the psychology student’s most feared course, psychological statistics (known widely as “sadistics”), I am keenly aware of the anxiety that examinations can bring. In the hours before an exam, particularly the first exam of the semester, I receive more calls from students than at any other time of the year. A diverse array of maladies of varying degrees of credibility emerge just in time to forestall the dreaded event. Personal, family, and cohort emergencies suddenly appear, and I am forced to listen to stories I would rather not hear. Both vomiting and crying are not unusual before, during, or after an exam, and in one case a student had an epileptic seizure.

Presented by

Stuart Vyse is the Joanne Toor Cummings '50 Professor of Psychology at Connecticut College.

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