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Layups: Does Superstition Actually Improve Performance?

Posted by Neil Paine on July 23, 2010

Researchers in Germany seem to think so:

"Throughout [Michael Jordan's] professional career he wore two pairs of shorts -- the ones we all saw on television, but beneath the Chicago Bulls uniform he also wore the blue University of North Carolina shorts from his spectacular days at the college level.

No, the researchers aren't suggesting that Michael became 'air Jordan' because his shorts were too tight. But the fact that he believed his college shorts could bring him luck might have made his performance a tad better."

They go on to explain the results in more general terms:

"What it all boils down to, according to four experiments the scientists conducted in Germany, is sometimes superstitions actually work. Not because they bring luck (either good or bad.) It's because believing that a rabbit's foot brings good luck can increase self confidence (luck is on his or her side) and thus the true believer performs better and sets higher goals."

I'm pretty sure Jordan wouldn't have lacked for confidence (or performance) even without his "lucky" UNC shorts, but in general I don't see anything too controversial about the finding. Furthermore, couldn't it also apply to a phenomenon like the "hot hand"? That is, if superstition is beneficial because the player's belief in some quasi-magical power increases his confidence, maybe the similar belief that you were "hot" might also give your performance a boost, simply because of that extra confidence.

Maybe. However, previous studies have actually confirmed that feeling "hot" boosts confidence... in a bad way. Players who considered themselves hot forced bad shots more often and ended up hurting the team, offsetting any benefit derived from the performance boost the German study found. In other words, you certainly want your players to be confident, and if a little superstition gets them there, fine... just make sure they're not too confident.

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9 Responses to “Layups: Does Superstition Actually Improve Performance?”

  1. Jason J Says:

    I could definitely see superstition having a positive or negative impact on player's game. If something stops "working" it could crush self-confidence.

  2. Gil Meriken Says:

    We need to figure out a way to incorporate "Superstition +/-" into the ratings.

    Basically, I will just use it to adjust any individual rankings to my liking.

  3. Imadogg Says:

    Makes perfect sense. We all saw Michael Jordan's secret stuff in Space Jam.

  4. Anon x 2 Says:

    the placebo effect, essentially. The mind is a powerful thing.

    FTR, I'm superstitious watching the games. How does that help my team? :P

  5. Sean Says:

    I do believe that positive thinking can help one meet one's potential. If superstitions feed positive thinking, then----yes----they can help. I imagine superstitions can hurt, though, as well -----if negative thoughts/ feelings rule the day.

  6. P Middy Says:

    Use the power of mental thinking! Make it dynamic!

  7. Michael Says:

    Superstition is related to ritual and reification, thus implying an altering of consciousness, which could play itself out in a positive way. The hot hand, which has a direct cause or correlate in game, a made shot, wouldn't be the same type of thing. There must be some type of overriding of reason through a charge initiated by the game itself, by the setting, etc. In other words,the hot hand could represent uncontrolled energy that contradicts the regimentation and permanence that a superstition would have.

    I assume that the superstition is reason for a person who believes in it, and in ways shows the degree to which basketball can structure a consciousness. Ray Allen and Michael Jordan demonstrate a type of regimentation that alters their belief in an almost spiritual way that not only affects the game but their practicing habits, their consistency and their focus.

  8. Neil Paine Says:

    It's definitely true that the ritual aspect of superstition is difference, but I think there's an angle where both involve getting a positive reinforcement for an action and believing that repeating the action will result in the same positive result.

  9. Learn how to play basketball Says:

    The mind is a powerful thing and i think that having a positive mind can boost confidence. It is just like riding a roller coaster. You will not go on it if you do not have any confidence, but if you think that it is not that bad and let's just say you have a "lucky bracelet" on, you will most likely ride that roller coaster due to the boost of confidence. This is what happened with Jordan, I think. Like the blog says, just don't be too confident because then you could blow everything. Overall interesting and good article =)