How Superstition Works

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.

(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.

College students are not famous for their superstitions. In fact, conventional wisdom suggests that the highly educated should be more skeptical than their less learned peers. Yet superstition is frequently associated with fear of failure, and when it comes to examinations, many college students are genuinely fearful. In a fascinating investigation of exam-related superstitions, two Canadian researchers found that college students are indeed a superstitious group.

As part of a larger study of college life, sociologists Daniel and Cheryl Albas gathered data over 13 years from more than 300 students at the University of Manitoba. Students filled out standardized questionnaires and recorded descriptions of relevant thoughts, sentiments, and behavior in examination logs. In addition, the investigators observed students in a number of locations, on and off campus, and conducted many formal and informal interviews. Based on this information, the Albases estimated that from 20 to 33 percent of their students used magic, primarily to bring on good luck rather than to stave off bad. They discovered that student’s exam-related superstitions fell into two broad categories: the use of magical objects and the practice of special rituals. The Albases enumerated too many examples to present here, but a selection of beliefs and behaviors will help to give us a flavor of this subculture.

One of the most popular student superstitions involved clothing, and, with some exceptions, the predominant practice was "dressing down." Old sweatshirts were (and, I believe, still are) quite popular. One science student always wore an old scarf that he claimed "carries parts of my brain in it." Some students dressed up, however, and a young man who always wore a three-piece suit admitted, "It’s not a very logical thing to wear to an exam because it’s hot and restricting." Yet he maintained the belief that his suit improved his performance.

Several students reported that they used special pens with which they had written previous successful exams. Such pens were thought to improve performance; having to take an exam without one’s special pen would be cause for concern. An advertisement in a student newspaper read as follows:

Help! I've lost my silver Cross pen. Deep psychological and sentimental value; never written an exam without it. Lost last Friday. If found contact Anna …

Typically, textbooks cannot be used during an exam. At the University of Manitoba, students stacked books around the perimeter of the examination room or under their desks. Nevertheless, several students reported that being able to see their books during an exam improved their performance: "summaries come up through the covers."

Some students used more common talismans, such as rabbit’s feet, dice, and coins, as well as teddy bears and other cuddly toys. In this category the Albases reported one particularly unusual case. A young male student would not take an exam unless he had "found" a coin, which he interpreted as a sign of good luck. As a result, he would search for a coin on the day of an exam, often wasting precious study time "scrounging around bus stops" until he was successful—even at the risk of being late to the exam.

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

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