Good Luck Charms and Quirky Pre-Performance Routines: Can Superstition Enhance Performance?

Have you ever knocked on wood? Tossed salt over your shoulder? Went out of your way to avoid walking under a ladder?

Even if you’re usually a very logical and pragmatic person, there is probably a quirky superstition or two that you go along with from time to time.

And when it comes to uncertain, stressful situations like performances, competitions, or auditions (particularly those in which you don’t feel you have much control over the end result), it may be even more tempting to engage in superstitious behaviors.

You’d be in good company of course, as many successful athletes have been known to have some pretty quirky game-day routines.

Michael Jordan, for instance, is said to have worn his college basketball shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform for luck (and purportedly inspired the trend of longer shorts in the NBA in order to cover up those blue UNC shorts).

Tiger Woods wears a red shirt on the last day of each golf tournament.

Serena Williams wears the same pair of socks for the duration of a tournament.

And whether it’s a pre-concert shepherd’s pie (Rolling Stones), campfire song sing-a-long (Red Hot Chili Peppers), or shirt-ironing ritual (Led Zeppelin), superstitious behavior amongst musicians is not unheard of either.

But are these quirks and superstitions actually helpful? Or are they just a waste of time and energy? A precarious psychological dependence on luck, or a “crutch” that we ought to eliminate from our performance preparation?

Putt putt

We know that pre-performance routines (like the way basketball players will bounce the ball a certain number of times before shooting a free throw), can have a beneficial effect on performance.

But a series of studies conducted at the University of Cologne suggest that even superstitious rituals – which have nothing to do with increasing focus or priming motor skills – may have a positive impact on our performances as well.

Twenty-eight university students were randomly divided into two groups and asked to sink 10 putts. Those in the control condition were handed a ball and simply told “This is the ball everyone has used so far.” They scored an average of 4.75 successful putts out of 10.

Those in the ”superstition” condition were handed a ball and told “Here is your ball. So far it has turned out to be a lucky ball.” They scored an average of 6.42 successful putts out of 10. That’s a 35% difference in performance.

Puzzle time

In a second study, participants were given a puzzle to solve (a plastic cube with 36 little balls inside that they had to pass through 36 holes by gently tilting the cube in different directions), and timed to see how long it would take.

In one group, the participants were instructed to begin when told “on ‘go’ you go.” In another group, the participants were told to begin when the experimenter said “I press the watch for you” (yeah, I know that phrase sounds odd, but it will make sense in a second). And in the superstition condition, the participants were told “I press the thumbs for you” – a German phrase which makes even less sense, but translates to the more familiar English expression “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”

Lo and behold, the participants in the “fingers crossed” superstition group outperformed their counterparts by a significant margin – 191.5 seconds (3 minutes, 11.5 seconds) vs. 319.7 seconds (5 minutes, 19.7 seconds) and 342.3 seconds (5 minutes, 42.3 seconds) for the two other groups.

But why?!

So why does engaging in superstitious behaviors seem to boost performance (at least in these cases)?

The researchers conducted a couple follow-up studies, the results of which suggest that activating these superstitions enhanced the participants’ “self-efficacy” or belief in their ability to do well on the upcoming task.

And when we are more optimistic or confident in our abilities to be successful, we tend to do better (and BTW, here’s an interesting read on the confidence gap between men and women).

So there’s no “magic” involved per se. Just a blend of hard work, smart preparation, and a little luck for an added edge.

Take action

Do you have a lucky ritual, or good-luck charm?

Like anything else, there’s a fine line between a bit of harmless (and possibly helpful) superstitious behavior for luck, and developing an obsessive and crippling dependence on some elaborate routine. Indeed, I think there’s a lot of truth in the saying “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

But rather than feeling silly and ridiculous or apologetic about your quirky pre-performance ritual, it’s probably better to embrace your little quirks, and just go ahead and wear your lucky socks/undies/accessories to your next audition.

After all, you can never have too much luck, right?

Additional resources

I recently stumbled upon Rituals – a series of mini-documentaries on various performers like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and comedian Patten Oswalt, which show some of the artists’ private pre-show rituals and routines. Each episode is short, and very cool. Some interesting and valuable lessons to be learned from each one.

Check out the playlist here: Rituals by Thrash Lab

photo credit: s3aphotography via photopin cc

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8 Responses

  1. Interesting. It seems that all those rituals come from a successful performance in the past. For me as a chess player, I always fold my arms and close my eyes for a few sec before every match although I cannot explain how this helps me. It was because in a tournament I drew the first two games against weak opponents. Then I did this purely to clear my head and to my surprise after that I managed to beat players much stronger than me and almost finished the tournament unbeaten.

  2. How to get obsessed ? Using the recording tool in a smart way with the rule of only recording if you are sure because of the things you learnt in the practice room that what you record is better than the previous recording. Recording becomes a privilege. Considering your instrument, the music stand the music sheet and the recording tool as treasures of the practice room is my second thing.
    How to get obsessed and persue a deeper engagement?
    my work could become more precise. I could get more obsessed. How?

    You will have to record the three excerpts today. or not.
    And do you know the types of video games you have? The one where when
    the bad guy touches you you die and you have to do the entire level
    again the other one where you restart where you have been eaten.
    I prefer the second type. In the practice room it’s whether you
    restart the entire excerpt or just the mistake.

    In video games I like the concept of Extra Rooms where you get a lots
    of extra items for free. In the practice room this could be just going
    through the music sheet between two excepts doing as if you already
    posessed the music.
    To be obsessed about doing these three recordings today. Being obsessed with leaving a trace of yourself today-which is better than the previous day. is the only way of getting it done.

    1. There is something I would like to implement today to be more focused, more engaged and not to care about the size of the recording. Doing a shorter recording. I feel it’s that. and how to get my stress working at it. How to use my stress to care more

  3. How not to take every single note I play for granted ? How to care for everything new I do? What stretegy could I use? How to take more time and focus much more on what I am doing ? what I am playing ? Should I wait a little bit more?

  4. The questions altogether first: Is it by doing lots of little recordings ? because we could play it well and we don’t want to lose anything of our playing ? how to not take every single note I play for granted ? How to get into and do that kind of practice when I do not feel like it ? How to wait ? How to do mind wandeing in my practice ? use it? How to “wait’ before and after playing ? how not to be afraid of the lack of control, the let-it-go when we stop playing for a moment, the let-it-go that may occur during mind wandering but which could actually play the role of recuperation time (like in sports) ? How to be in this environment/world/universe of sounds but not to distinct depth and and the other thing? Sometimes we need more practice. I tell myself that the music is in me by means of playing it, practicing it again and again. I tell myself that my music is in my fingers. How to stress ? How to care ? without depressing ? without comparing to others and depress ? because we are engaged in our work, we won’t depress because our work strenghtens us. How to live at the expense of the music I play ? Yes, a violinist said don’t forget, you are paid for every single note you play or somethng similar. How to be engaged and to persue the engagement all the practice time along, and to keep it from day to day and from week to week.
    And first goal was: to inspire others!!! How to get the others to care as much as I do, to get curious, not to take everything I do for granted too, to be as engaged as I am?

  5. How to almost naturally spot the pieces of the puzzleI I should solve and to get them assembled in me ?

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