As people hold their four leaf clovers on St. Patrick’s Day and pocket their horseshoes before a major exam, the question arises: Do good luck charms really work?
According to a team of psychologists at the University of Cologne in Germany, well, yes.
In a series of experiments employing tasks involving memory and motor skills, the scientists studied the effect of behavior and “object superstitions” which rely on good luck charms in college students and published the results in the journal Psychological Science.
The first experiment looked at the influence of the concept of good luck in a test of putting a golf ball. Experimenters handed participants a ball, and those who were told the ball was lucky tended to outperform those who weren’t.
In another experiment, participants were given a cube containing tiny balls and a slab with holes. The goal was to get as many balls in the holes as quickly as possible. Again, participants who were told, “I’ll cross my fingers for you,” by the experimenter performed better.
The final two experiments involved a lucky charm brought by each participant. In a memory test and an anagram test, the participants who were permitted to keep their lucky charms with them performed better.
To find out if superstitious beliefs were truly giving students an edge, the scientists surveyed them before the final two experiments to gauge their confidence levels. The participants who kept their good luck charms set higher goals for what they wanted to achieve on the tasks, and said they felt more confident in their abilities.
“Engaging in superstitious thoughts and behaviors may be one way to reach one’s top level of performance,” the researchers write in the journal article.
People around the world often become what is known as superstitious when faced with unknown and stressful situations but the researchers say engaging in a superstition could reduce tension related to a high-stakes competition or an exam. It could also mean carrying a good luck charm of some sort during these situations.
Historically, for example, the ancient Egyptians wore lucky charms or amulets as a protection against death and evil spirits. One of the oldest was the ‘eye’ of Horus, a sky god who took the shape of a falcon. His right eye represents a falcon’s, including the ‘teardrop’ sometimes seen below it. Horus was called on by his mother Isis to destroy her wicked brother Set, and lost his eye after a series of battles with Set. When the eye was restored it was believed to have special powers. The eye symbol was also known as a ‘wadjet’, a deity with links to the Sun. Representations of the eye were made of precious metal and endowed its wearer with the strength of the life-giving Sun. Babies, and even valuable livestock, were given amulets for protection. Today’s christening gifts are a remnant of this practice.
Superstitious beliefs may also increase a person’s belief in his or her own abilities and talents from these results…and what may seem like a “lucky break” when for instance, the underdog team wins in the Superbowl, may actually be the result of team-wide, superstition-induced confidence.