Under the Hood

Superstition Comes From A Lacking Sense Of Control: The Science Behind Good Luck Charms

four-leaf clover
We cross our fingers or wear lucky socks only when the goals we set step outside the realm of control. John CC BY 2.0

We’ve picked an interesting array of items to serve as good luck charms: horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, the number seven, wishbones, shooting stars, and (of course) rabbit’s feet. Or maybe you’re a creative type and use an old blankie or a pair of socks. Superstitions let you choose your own adventure.

One day while sliding on those unwashed good luck charms, maybe you’ve been hit with the rogue thought: Why are we superstitious at all? If our mission is to accomplish our goals, abandoning our autonomy sounds like a step in the wrong direction. Why should the universe care how well we do on our geometry exam?

Two Sides Of The Coin

Personal goals aren’t created equal. The people who study psychology and human behavior break them up into two main categories: learning goals and performance goals. Mastering the slide whistle is a learning goal — you want to get better purely for an intrinsic sense of accomplishment. Using that mastery to nail your big solo during Battle of the Bands is a performance goal. When other people are the ones doing the judging, you seek validation in your execution of the task. How well you do is up for debate.

Superstitions, by and large, apply to performance goals. When we’re at home studying, and the light from our desk lamp is illuminating all our missed math problems, we don’t run to the dresser to fish out a pair of smelly socks — we’d have no reason to. We don’t get any closer to the goal of private self-improvement if we jump ship to let some gym socks take the wheel. All we can do is study harder.

“I know that I accomplish my goal only when I perceive a sense of mastery,” said Eric Hamerman, assistant professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Tulane University. In learning goals, that mastery is determined solely by the one doing the learning — she writes her own rules. Performance goals take away that power, which is why they “may seem more susceptible to outside influence such as luck.” In other words, when we don’t have complete control of our lives, good luck charms are what we use to renew our faith that everything is in order.

Hamerman and his colleagues sought to better understand how control breaks down in a recent study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Through a handful of experiments involving lucky pens, lucky and unlucky avatars, and science quizzes, they pinpointed key differences between how people approach luck depending on the goal. Both chronic and temporary performance goals employed some form of superstition. Learning goals never did. Even when achieving the goal was uncertain — “What if I choke on my slide whistle mid-solo?” — superstition only cropped up to help people cope with performance goals.

Comfort Food For Thought

Hamerman offers one note of caution: The study never tried to measure if superstition actually improved performance. The authors can only comment on the circumstances in which people used superstition. He does suspect, however, that a grain of irrationality may help in certain contexts.

“A lucky shirt is not going to allow someone who has not studied at all to know the answer on a difficult exam,” he said. “But I can see where someone who studies hard but often second-guesses their answers (and thereby makes mistakes because their first instinct is the right one) can benefit through the placebo effect.”

For most other cases, superstition should be seen as little more than emotional comfort. The pangs of worry we feel the moments before an expected applause or getting back a test remind us that we can’t choose how we’re judged. The best we can do is stay true to the parental wisdom of knowing we did our best. Superstition is what gives us hope before the hammer falls.