The Science of Superstition

It’s game day! You’re wearing your lucky team jersey with your lucky number on the back (even though your team loses 50% of the time, it’s lucky because they won the first time you wore it), you put your left sock on first, you sing the magic song, and you’ve performed your pre-match ritual. Nothing can possibly go wrong, right? Silly superstition, or is there something more to it?

B.F. Skinner is not a name you would usually associate with superstition and yet he may have accidentally uncovered the science of superstition. Skinner was a hardcore behavioural psychologist who believed that all behaviour was a response to something, with free will being an illusion. Where Pavlov discovered if he rang a bell his dogs would salivate, Skinner discovered the idea of reinforcement. During one experiment Skinner was able to train a pigeon to make a complete anti-clockwise turn in order to receive food. What Skinner did was tie two unrelated actions together to make the pigeon believe there was a causation.

In behaviourism there is a formula of A-B-C to explain why anything happens: Antecedent (cause), behaviour (action), and consequence (the outcome). The outcome will determine whether or not the behaviour is repeated.

Superstition happens in sport all the time. Liverpool FC have had a long tradition of touching the famous “This is Anfield” sign as they run onto the field. The formula here is: Touch the sign (A), play better (B), win the game (C), and repeat. Current manager, Jurgen Klopp has put a halt on this until the team wins something: “You can’t do the superstition that helps you win until you win something to earn the superstition.”

Here are the three take aways for today:

1 – Superstition may not have any direct power, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Within superstition is the belief that it works, and that can be enough to try harder to make it work. Skinner’s pigeon began by turning to the left a little, and within a minute was making complete turns because an unseen entity gave it food every time it did.

2 – Superstition can become a dead ritual, and this is where behaviours are done simply because “this is the way things have always been done.” The “This is Anfield” sign was put up by legendary manager Bill Shankly to intimidate opponents and bring luck to the home team as they touched it. It eventually became just an action without the inspiration. As the winning ways declined, the power of the sign declined with it.

3 – Bobby Moore, the only Englishman to lead his country to a World Cup, insisted on being the last person to put his shorts on. Messi and Ronaldo both insist on being the last player onto the field. Another strange one for Messi is that he is currently unable to shave his lucky beard, presumably in the same way NHL players sport a lucky play-off beard in the Stanley Cup. It’s got to be lucky for someone, right?

There is a fine line in superstition. It has to be believed for it to work, but it can’t be given the full power of determining victory or defeat or there is no point practicing. For Skinner’s pigeon the superstition worked, but only when it worked a little harder, went a little further, and did just a little more that it did last time.

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