Superstitions are widely recognized in all levels of sport and have been for many years. Later research shows data from seventy years back. It is known that rituals and superstitions have been around for some time. This paper is going to go through some research studies that may shed some light on why superstitions are so common and prominent in today’s society. From the most dominant and decorated olympians to major league teams, all the way down to younger players. There are many worldwide superstitions that link back to decades. Many people have superstitions but may not know where they stem from. So what is superstition? How do they come about?
Simply stated, a superstition is an unjustified belief that a supernatural reason leads to certain outcomes. The Merriam Webster dictionary describes superstition as the fear of the unknown, or a dependence of magic or chance. They are normally birthed through coincidence and chance. Some superstitions can be thousands of years old and passed down from generation to generation through observational learning. Superstitions have a relationship to locus of control but also a relationship to the social learning theory. Social learning theory in short is the perspective others learn by observing different people. For example, attitude, facial expressions, and different behaviors.
A study by Womack states that “superstitious behaviors are defined as unusual, repetitive, rigid behavior that is perceived to have a positive effect by the player, when in reality there is no specific link between behavior and outcome” (Womack, 1992). Superstitious behaviors in sport can also be defined as “actions which are repetitive, formal, sequential, distinct from technical performance, and which the athletes believe to be powerful in controlling luck or other external factors” (Womack, 1992).
Research indicates that the theory of superstitions or rituals is heavily relied on when uncertainty is high versus low, and the importance of the game is greater rather than lower (Schippers and Lange, 2005). In result “players with an external locus of control presented with higher levels of ritual commitment than players with an internal locus of control” (Schippers and Lange, 2005).
So how does superstitious behavior develop? Langer and his colleagues had a theory that people are prone to see themselves as a cause, even when outcomes are out of their control. Therefor people perform these behaviors to try and change the situation when in reality it is out of their hands. In competitive sport there is a large combination of skill as well as chance Langer states, and athletes are much more prone to the illusion of control and superstition in these situations (Langer and Roth, 1975; Langer, 1977). “The feeling of stability or control can contribute calmness before performance as well as build confidence” (Becker, 1975). Rituals typically work because the player believes they will, or by sheer happenstance (Schippers and Lange, 2005).
Other superstitions may develop that relate to food, certain clothing, or pre and post game activities or behavior (Buhrmann, Brown, and Zaugg, 1982). Warm ups or routines can be differentiated from superstitious rituals Cohn studied. Cohn stated that “routines are learned, behavioral and cognitive strategies used by athletes to carry out performances” (Cohn, 1990). Rituals can be picked up subconsciously while routines are implemented by a coach or a team.
Going back over a course of seventy years ago B. F. Skinner conducted research using pigeons that is widely known. He concluded that superstitious behavior can stem from conditioning (Skinner, 1948). Skinner essentially fed pigeons on irregular intervals. In doing so he observed the pigeons behavior when he gave them food. Each time they continued to follow the same behavior used when the food was presented. As an example if a pigeon was turning its head a certain way it would continue to do so. Skinner called this superstitious behavior because it was as if the pigeon thought there was a connection with it’s behavior and the administration of food (Skinner, 1948). A theory that he essentially proved that is still a source of reason in todays time. The theory that people often try to find a link between their actions and results. In reality there actually is not one.
Research conducted by Bleak and Frederick used the Superstitious Beliefs Measure Scale to measure superstitious beliefs, rituals, and behaviors. Bleak and Frederick modified the scale slightly from an earlier version by Buhrmann, Brown, and Zaugg. Buhrmann and colleagues had seven categories on the scale including: clothing, fetishes, team rituals, prayer, pregame, game and coach. The participants ranged from three different division one collegiate teams including gymnastics, track, and football. The mean age of participants was 20.5 years old (Bleak and Frederick, 1998).
One of three hypotheses they researched included the hypothesis that sport attribution is in connection to the use of superstitious behaviors. Therefor they examined the relationship between external and internal locus of control in their study. Frederick and Bleak presented a scale that asked each athlete to determine whether they did or did not take part in superstitious behavior. They also asked each participant whether the behavior was effective and to what degree it helped on a scale of 1-5. A total superstitious behavior score was created by adding the number of rituals used per individual (Bleak and Frederick, 1998).
In conclusion of the results Bleak and Frederick found that gymnasts use more superstitious rituals than track athletes or football players. Across all three teams the top rituals that were most effectively used were, prayer and a lucky charm or piece of clothing. Bleak and Frederick also concluded that checking one’s appearance was related to locus of control beliefs. An athlete checking their appearance gives them an internal control of their sport representation (Bleak and Frederick, 1998).
Schippers and Lange conducted fairly similar research as Bleak and Frederick in 2005. Schippers and Lange researched psychological benefits of superstitious rituals in top sport athletes. The purpose for this research was to find the situational and person related importance and reason among top athletes (Schippers and Lange, 2005).
One hundred ninety seven athletes participated including 145 men and 52 women. Three different sports were represented: volleyball, football, and hockey. The mean age was twenty four (Schippers and Lange, 2005). Hypotheses for this research include: internals (internal locus of control) will possess higher levels of rituals than externals, and vice versa. As well as the theory that when a given team is worse than their opponent or equivalent athletes will rely heavier on rituals and superstition (Schippers and Lange, 2005).
Each player on each team was given two questionnaires to complete, one being on locus of control and the other on superstition. A sample question was “how superstitious do other athletes find you?” (Schippers and Lange, 2005). Both questionnaires were based off a six point scale much like Bleak and Frederick’s. Out of 197, 158 participants mentioned one or more rituals they perform before a game. That is a strong 80% of the participants, which breaks down to about two and a half rituals per person (Schippers and Lange, 2005).
Results showed there was no difference in the amount of rituals performed by each different sporting team (Schippers and Lange, 2005). The results from Bleak and Frederick coincide in the fact that among all three teams in Schipper and Lange’s study the top ritual performed by all three teams include wearing a special piece of clothing. Bleak and Frederick proved that ritual to be true as well among their three teams.
In conclusion Schipper and Lange proved the theory that when a given team is worse than their opponent they will most likely rely more on rituals. They also revealed that externals (people with external locus of control) presented with higher levels of superstitions and rituals versus internals (Schippers and Lange, 2005).
Nationwide common superstitions include not saying aloud when a pitcher is throwing a no hitter, breaking a mirror, seeing a black cat, or friday the 13th. Some more famous individuals that have specific rituals or superstitions include Tiger Woods wearing a red shirt on Sundays. His mother told him at a young age that red was his power color and it has been a ritual ever since (Goldsmith, 2012). Michael Jordan use to wear his UNC shorts under his Bulls jersey in every game because he thought they brought him good luck (Lebowitz, 2015). Serena Williams always ties her shoelaces in a specific way and never changes socks during a tournament. An interesting fact when watching Serena is how she bounces the ball exactly five times before her first serve, then only two times before her second (Goldsmith, 2012).
Some of the world’s favorite athletes have superstitions. These athletes may have external locus of control. In translation, they believe that outside forces affect the outcome versus how they perform is in their own hands. Many athletes often try to recreate a great performance or outcome, therefore they repeat the same routine as previous in hopes of another good outcome.
It has been said that superstitions develop by accident, stemming from what a person wears or eats leading up to a performance (Quinn, E.). Studies have shown that athletes become superstitious when they are faced with unfamiliar stressful situations. For some the dependence on routines and rituals is what keeps them keyed in or level headed (Goldsmith, 2012).
Some people attribute their success to their skills and abilities versus others who accredit failure to external factors. Feather looked into this theory and conducted research that validates his theory. He states “when a person succeeds or fails at a task the degree to which he attributes responsibility for the outcome to ability or luck depends on his initial expectations of success” (Feather, 1969).
He presented subjects with anagram tests, and rated them beforehand on how they thought they would complete the test. Results showed that if the subject was initially confident they connected success to ability and failure to bad luck. On the other hand if they initially were not confident they awarded success as being lucky and failure to the lack of skills. In conclusion most of the subjects recognized their success as a mixture of ability and luck (Feather, 1969).
A study was conducted in Germany 2010 at the University of Cologne. The study was being performed in order to try and see if superstitions can actually improve one’s performance on cognitive tasks as well as athletics (Lebowitz, 2015). One experiment consisted of forty one college students. Each student was asked to bring a lucky charm. Half of the students had to leave their lucky charms with a researcher while they completed a memory test. The other half got to keep their lucky charms.
Before the memory tests all forty one students completed a survey indicating how confident they about achieving well. This can be defined as self efficacy. The results showed the that students that got to keep their lucky charms performed better, than their peers without their charms (Lebowitz, 2015). A following experiment resulted in the superstitious behavior and self efficacy increase led individuals to set higher goals to achieve and hold up longer on given tasks. With the results it is clear superstitious beliefs have an affect on our behavior (Lebowitz, 2015).
With all the research and case studies it is evident that superstitions have long been studied and researched. The research throughout the paper validates that superstition is seen at all levels. Pigeons, men and women, athletes of top rank, to athletes that have played at the highest of levels. Locus of control is heavily related to superstition, seeing that numerous researchers connected the two. It is also noted that there is a trend in rituals that are typically performed and seem to be most used. The most used rituals include, wearing a certain piece of clothing, having a lucky charm, prayer, and eating a specific food. Two studies proved this to be true at the highest level of collegiate athletes.
In conclusion I gathered that superstitions and rituals often occur when a subject fears the unknown. When stakes are high, or when you and your team are the underdog. The findings also show locus of control, attribution theory, self efficacy, and observational learning have connections to superstition which we have discussed in class. I had a theory that appeared to be true in the sense of externals seem to rely more on rituals. Many athletes I mentioned that are at the professional level present to be externals, which is shocking considering how successful they are or have been. Schippers and Lange was my favorite study to read because it showed how 80% of athletes have superstitions. That seems relatively high but really shows that it is a real trend among athletes. All in all there was a lot of supportive data that really gave insight behind superstitious behavior. I was interested about this topic because I was always very superstitious as a player all through little league to being a collegiate athlete. It was nice to see the data and results of people all around the world who were interested as well.