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The next time you cross your fingers or tell someone to break a leg, you may actually be bringing some luck.

Superstitious ways of bringing good luck are found in cultures around the world, and it turns out they may be ubiquitous for a very good reason: To some extent, superstitions work. New research shows that believing in, say, the power of a good luck charm can actually help improve performance in certain situations, even though the charm and event aren't logically linked.

This is what a team of psychologists at the University of Cologne in Germany report in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science. 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.

Cross your fingers

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.

Boosted confidence

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 often become superstitious when faced with unknown and stressful situations, possibly explaining why athletes and students are often superstitious, the researchers say. Engaging in a superstition could reduce tension related to a high-stakes competition or an exam.

As the study showed, superstitious beliefs may also increase a person's belief in his or her own abilities and talents. And what may seem like a “lucky break” when the underdog team wins may really be the result of team-wide, superstition-induced confidence.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.