Cross Your Fingers: Do Rituals Really Work?

(Editor’s note: This article from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Whether it’s saving a four-leaf clover, crossing your fingers, or carrying a lucky charm, most people are at least somewhat superstitious. While lucky charms and rituals are often dismissed as irrational or silly, they are found across nearly all cultures and are part of everyday life for many people.

Actors say “break a leg” to wish each other a good performance, because saying the word “luck” inside the theater would be tempting fate. (Dancers say “merde” for the same reason.) And athletes famously wear lucky shirts or perform pre-game routines to increase their good fortune or prevent bad luck.

People turn to superstition to help them deal with uncertainty, says Dr. Stuart Vyse, a psychologist in Stonington, Connecticut and author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition.” “When you don’t have complete control over the outcome, superstitions can give you a sense of control, or the illusion of control,” says Vyse. Superstition allows us to believe we have a hand in fate.

“There is still a lot of the world that we don’t understand,” says Vyse. In an uncertain world, the brain looks for patterns and tries to create order out of chaos. “Magical thinking” helps us understand the events in our lives and make sense of the unknown. There is a paradox, however. While rituals may seem irrational, some evidence suggests they could in fact work. Neuroscientists have sought to explain whether rituals are effective. If they are, then what makes them so?

BELIEF IS GOOD, RITUALS ARE BETTER

A number of studies have demonstrated the power of rituals. But they don’t work in any obvious way.

The researchers, Dr. Michael Norton and Dr. Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School, have done several studies on how mourning rituals affect grief. Surprisingly, they found that the vast majority of mourners had devised individual, personal rituals that they performed on their own. A mere 15 percent reported taking part in a public act of bereavement. In addition, people who performed a ritual — whether public or private — to mourn a loss felt less sadness than those who did not. “Rituals after losing loved ones help people regain a lost sense of control,” explained Norton. “[They] help people improve their mental state.” By counteracting feelings of powerlessness, rituals can help people overcome grief more quickly and restore a sense of purpose.

Other research suggests that rituals may enhance athletic performance. In 2010 psychologists at the University of Cologne in Germany conducted a series of studies exploring the effects of lucky charms and rituals. In one experiment, participants received either a “lucky” golf ball or a “regular” one and were asked to complete a golf task. The experimenters found that those with the “magic” ball performed better than the others, setting higher goals for themselves and persevering for longer.

In another experiment, the researchers asked 41 participants to bring a lucky charm with them to a memory test. About half of the group were allowed to keep it with them, while the rest had to hand it over to the experimenter. All participants then completed a survey on how confident they felt going in. At the end of the test, people who were allowed to keep their lucky charm scored higher than those who weren’t. The researchers attributed the difference to a boost in confidence as based on an analysis of self-efficacy, or one’s confidence in succeeding.

The results of such studies are intriguing. More research needs to be done, however, in order to demonstrate causation. The golf ball study also has yet to be replicated, notes Vyse. Nevertheless, carrying a lucky charm to an exam or job interview could reduce anxiety and boost confidence, which just might translate into improved performance. Scientists are still picking apart why superstitious behaviors affect us the way they do. No one knows yet exactly how rituals work, but if they do it is not because of magic.


“It’s more in the person’s overall attitude toward life,” says Vyse. Optimism is a crucial element, he adds. An optimist would be more likely to persist despite adversity, which could increase their chances of achieving their goal.

(Editor’s note: This article from the Fall 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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