Cross your fingers, touch wood, and don’t forget the rabbit’s foot. What leads people to put faith in such habits? Research from Boston and Tulane universities suggests our goals have a big influence. Luck is the last thing on our minds when we’re concerned with learning. But when we’re focused on external goals such as scoring a high exam grade, superstitious thinking intrudes.
Being superstitious is about invoking some force beyond ourselves to make the other horse stumble, help our guesses fall on the correct answers, or our balls tumble out of the lottery machine. As these examples indicate, a common theme is that there is something about the goal also being beyond ourselves – external – and this is what researchers Eric Hamerman and Carey Morewedge set out to investigate.
In one experiment, participants indicated they would prefer to complete a (hypothetical) class assignment using a lucky pen, when their aim was to chase a grade. In contrast, the pen held no attraction when they were told their only focus was to master the subject matter, because flukey guesses won’t actually help you learn any better. The fruits of understanding are internal and impervious to Lady Luck’s ways.
The same pattern of superstition was found in a follow-up experiment. When the purpose of the task was to perform as well as possible, participants often chose a “lucky” avatar to represent themselves, one that they’d used earlier when they were told they’d performed very well. This was the case even when the “unlucky” alternative would otherwise seem more fitting, such as a scientist avatar for a science quiz. In contrast, those participants tasked to simply see what they could learn, strongly favoured the scientist avatar.
In a further experiment, Hamerman and Morewedge uncovered another important factor: uncertainty. When a task was introduced as being straightforward and with few surprises, participants weren’t drawn to the previously successful avatar. Only performance-minded participants who were also warned “some people intuitively see the right answers, while others do not” were keen to get lucky.
It’s interesting to know when we may fall into superstitious habits, but the authors also point out a parallel insight. Highly successful practitioners in many fields are those people who “reframe their objectives as learning goals to focus on the process rather than the results.” What this means is that when we slip into superstitious tendencies, this may be a clue to us that we are looking at an activity in the wrong way, preoccupied with immediate outcomes and not treating the task as an opportunity to develop ourselves and deepen our understanding.
Hamerman, E., & Morewedge, C. (2015). Reliance on Luck: Identifying Which Achievement Goals Elicit Superstitious Behavior Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41 (3), 323-335 DOI: 10.1177/0146167214565055