THE BLOG

Do Weird Sports Superstitions and Rituals Actually Work?

06/17/2013 01:59 EDT | Updated 08/17/2013 05:12 EDT
Getty
Portrait of ice hockey player standing on ice in hockey arena wearing helmet

Lucky underwear? Lucky potato chips? The illustrious "playoff beard?"

If you're gearing up for your favourite team's next NHL playoff game by taking part in a superstitious ritual, your friends might think you're nuts. But science has you covered.

A new study to be published in the October 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research takes a close look at the complicated, sometimes irrational mental processes that spin regular people into the kind who utter, "My team has this! Why? Because I haven't washed my lucky jersey since 1984!"

The results of the study stink if you're a super fan.

Researcher Eric J. Hamerman, an assistant professor of marketing at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University and his team found that one of the biggest driving forces behind individuals' superstitious behaviours is a desire to achieve an outcome they don't actually have any power over -- like, say, filling the opponent's net with loose hockey pucks. They also found that the more desperate you are to see your team succeed, the more likely you are to reach for a so-called "lucky" object (or grow a face 'fro).

"In general, loyal fans -- those with a strong desire to see their team win -- want to control the outcome of each game in any way that they can," says Hamerman. "Because there is no realistic way for them to do that from the couch, they look for other ways of exerting control, such as superstition. If the fan perceives that any of their activities are associated with the team doing well, like buying the same brand of chips during each game, then he or she might continue purchasing the same chips as a method of helping the team."

The illusion of control that you gain when you reach for the Old Dutch Bar-B-Q can make you feel more optimistic about your team's chances of winning in the future, he adds, because you've got your trusty snack to help seal the victory.

Hamerman uses a special term to describe the habits you form when you begin to associate a certain product with success or failure: "conditioned superstitions." In his study, he conducted five separate experiments to help identify what personal characteristics and situations drive people to the behaviour.

What he found? That how much value you attribute to the event makes a huge difference. In one of his experiments, students who affiliated strongly with their school had a greater desire for the university's team to perform well during a quiz bowl than students who didn't feel invested in the outcome. Not surprisingly, those students were most likely to engage in superstitious behaviour (in this case, choosing a "lucky" Snickers bar over a neutral Kit-Kat as a snack) with a belief that they could influence the outcome and help their team win.

As far as hockey is concerned, this could only mean one thing: that the more you love your playoff team, the more likely you are to practice superstitious behaviours. So if your kitchen is painted Bruins yellow and your banking password is "chara", there may be a few extra items taking up the couch cushions (and a face forest taking up your chin) during the next game.

But, just how long are your lucky charms going to populate your living room? A large part of that is influenced by how well your team plays. If your guys are on a losing streak, the less hold of the situation you may feel, leading to an increase in superstition.

"A fan whose team is down three to one in a series might fixate on what he or she did during the lone victory and repeat those behaviours," says Hamerman. (For this reason, it might be a good idea to wear clean socks on a big game day.) On the other hand, if your team is up three to one and you re-gain a sense of control, the desire to win the next game is not as urgent and you may become less superstitious, he adds.

A small part of it, however, is in your hands. Another experiment in Hamerman's study pointed to a link between reduced superstitious behaviour and self-affirmation, the process of focusing on your strengths and positive values. Participants who were manipulated into stroking their own egos at the beginning of the study by recollecting times when they displayed favourable attributes, like kindness, were less likely to request a "lucky" background colour while performing a computerized quiz. Most likely, this occurred because the affirmations made the study participants feel competent, confident and capable; they were unfazed by the potential threat of poor performance and were more willing to take on risk and challenging tasks.

Hamerman suggests that there's a way you can apply this information to your hockey-cheering career: Fans who make self-affirming statements before a game may feel better about their self-worth and the prospect of their team getting crushed may not seem as disastrous, leading to less superstitious habits, he says.

It all boils down to the big question, however. At some point, when you're sitting in your living room in your stinky jersey, picking your lucky chips out of your beard and waiting for the game to start, you might start to ask yourself whether your superstitious ritual can actually help your team win the Stanley Cup.

In a word, Hamerman says no. "There is no evidence that superstitious behaviour by fans has any effect on the actual game -- that's why we call it irrational."

For those fans who are looking to help their team, he says there is only one "tried and true" strategy: "In the arena, cheer loudly. There's a reason why people call it home-ice advantage!"

Best 2013 Sports Photos