Superstition: the Surest Path to a Letdown

     

    Every time I wore it, I would do well. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way that my lucky T-shirt, with its cracked Quiksilver logo and multiple holes, was not in fact able to net me an extra 40 percent on every test. Most painful, though, was the revelation that all my other superstitions were also just vicious scams.

    Many of my childhood behaviors had been rooted in irrationality. Going to sleep at 11:11 the night before a big event, the peculiar way I laced my cleats — I fastidiously observed a list of rituals merely because I had done so once and enjoyed some success. 

    This problem, termed non-contingent reinforcement, was investigated to great lengths by famed psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1948. An experiment was set up using caged pigeons, which were rewarded with food regardless of what they did. Skinner found that three-quarters of the observed pigeons would start repeating any odd actions that they had been doing when they were fed, such as bobbing their heads upside down, frantically scratching their wings or turning in circles. Their comedic antics, which had no bearing whatsoever on their being fed, bear uncanny similarities to the often-goofy things that we do in an effort to replicate success.

    However, while those of us who have shattered a mirror recently or been confronted by a black cat might breathe a sigh of relief at the foolishness of superstition, we should note that ritualistic practices are sometimes helpful. Simple rites tend to have a placebo effect — if we believe in their efficacy we will have more confidence and perform better. Take pre-exam concentration rituals, for example. A 2011 University of Chicago study found that those who write down their thoughts prior to starting the test tend to do better. Whether or not this actually works is another matter, but the mere belief that it increases our score will lead us to attack the questions with great faith in our abilities.

    Superstitions are not always played out on such a trivial scale, however. Most buildings worldwide omit the 13th floor, while airplanes omit the 13th aisle. While simply relabeling the number on the elevator doesn’t magically make the 13th floor anything other than the 13th, it puts people at peace. With unlucky numbers or otherwise, we appear to be a society of hopeless lunatics.

    Lunacy aside, the lingering question is what you can do to help your luck once the dreaded finals week swings by. There are several directions in which to turn. You can walk backwards underneath Sun God, you could write with the hotel pen you’ve had since forever, or you might try actually studying. I, on the other hand, know a surefire route to success. I’ll be sipping on some Felix Felicis.

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