To be sure, belief in some superstitions can be dangerous, as this recent column in the Hindustan Times newspaper explains, relating how belief in witchcraft can be — and sometimes is — deadly in countries such as India.
But this piece isn’t about that. It was written by Ned Johnson, co-author with William Stixrud of “The Self-Driven Child,” and president and self-described tutor-geek of the D.C. area PrepMatters, a tutoring, test prep and educational counseling practice.
By Ned Johnson
It was game day at Don’s. Don had invited friends. He had prepared his famous wings. And he had placed a hat in the freezer.
Wait. What? An hour before the first pitch, he had put “on ice” a hat for the opposing team, festooned with the number of the starting pitcher. Why? To “freeze him out.” I told Don that he was nuts. “You don't know that it doesn't work,” he retorted. Absent logic and reason, he had a point.
Don, an avid Cleveland Indians fan, has endured another heartbreakingly early exit by his beloved team from this year’s playoffs. All he can do is find other fans to rant to and look forward to spring of next year. He’s not alone. To be a sports fan is to endure soaring passions, occasional rapture, frequent disappointment and, above all, a dispiriting low sense of control over the on-field goings-on about which sports fans have so much to say — but so little say about what occurs.
I own a test prep company, and a couple of years back, I worked with a student named Lindsay who had long developed coping methods to deal with her anxiety. Some methods involved self-talk, others, preparation. Some involved reframing, and some were, well, superstitious. One day, I took note that she was wearing the same jersey she had for the last two (three? four?) practice tests. “Is that your game-day jersey?” I asked.
Lindsay had a lucky jersey, lucky socks and lucky sweatpants. None of them was hers. All had been borrowed (or purloined) from her friends, imbued with their affection for one another and a belief that they would help her do her best work.
Superstition. The power of belief. “They can because they think they can,” opined Virgil. Or, to invoke Yogi Berra: “90 percent of the game is mental.” (“The other half is physical.”)
It turns out that Virgil and Yogi may have some backing in science. The psychologist Stephen Maier did a clever experiment with rats, using electrical shocks to induce stress but then installing a wheel in their cage and training them to turn the wheel to stop the shock. Once conditioned to use the wheel to stop the shocks, lowering their stress as a result, he then disconnected the wheel. When the shocks continued, the rats (not having read the memo) still had reduced amounts of cortisol, the anxiety hormone, in their brains. Like my friend Don, the rats may have had what Maier and fellow psychologist Martin Seligman deemed “the illusion of control.”
How can you employ superstition in practical ways? Well, a superstition is essentially about a conditioned response that generates a sense of control. Like Maier and his rats (or Pavlov and his dogs), we can condition ourselves by associating one thing with another and imbuing it with power. If a memorable breakfast, lucky socks or your personal “theme song” presage a memorably great performance, then having that same breakfast, socks or song before another performance nudges our anticipation toward things going well, thereby increasing our sense of control, lowering the stress hormone cortisol and increasing the performance-enhancing neurotransmitter dopamine.
For kids and teens, it’s useful to look at how superstitions can help during the school day — because that’s where they spend most of their time.
School can be very stressful, with a really low sense of control. After all, kids have to manage not only the pressure of peer and parent expectations, but also those of teachers who can be unpredictable, sometimes making a test or assignment too easy and sometimes too hard.
Like athletes, students are not only playing their opponents, but have to learn “to play the ref.” Does that ref yell “play on” as your star scorer gets mauled or blow the whistle at the slightest contact? Kids also have to deal with the vagaries of not one, but five, six, seven or more of these adults with whistles or red pens, while also asking permission to use a “time out” to go to the bathroom.
So, any tip or tool — whether it’s a lucky feather or a kid’s favorite pair of shoes — that promotes a sense of control can lower stress, increase motivation and make school a more engaging process. The feather or the shoes might not really help, but again, that’s hardly the point.
It is important to note, though, that there are good and bad superstitions. There are times when a sense of control is not healthy. Remember the belief that stepping on a crack will break your mother’s back? Neither true nor helpful. The sense that your lucky socks help you play better can be useful (even if not true), whereas the belief that not wearing them (or getting poor grades or having a messy room) will cause your parents to break up is decidedly unhealthy.
Lastly, a superstition that is ideally linked to productive activity not only correlates with success but can actually cause it. Because wearing lucky clothes helped my student feel she would do well, she was motivated to do more practice tests, even craving extra practice that led to the very outcome she sought.
My friend’s ritual of frozen hats may not alter a game the way he hopes. (After all, he is not in the game or helping his team’s players prepare). Even so, superstitious rituals certainly can and do help players and students alike.
A healthy sense of control can lower stress and increase motivation in the face of adversity. So, as nervous sports fans root for (or against) their hometown teams, and nervous kids with nervous parents eye the curveballs of upcoming standardized tests, let’s hear it for superstition.