I am a big fan of the New York Yankees and have been so for most of my life. In fact, I was just 4-years old when my father took me to my first game. I follow the team closely and I even have an extensive Yankees shrine in my home. I have enjoyed the elation of World Series victories and lamented heartbreaking losses. I also have a secret that many other fans share – I believe my actions can influence the outcome of games. OK, maybe I don’t really believe that, but then again, maybe I do. You see, I like so many other fans, am superstitious – especially when it comes to sports.
For years, I would only watch the games while standing in my kitchen (and tapping on the magical kitchen cabinets for good luck). This worked quite well, as evidenced by the fact that the Yankees won four World Series titles in a span of five years (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000). In November of 2001, I was away from home, so I had no choice but to watch games 6 and 7 of the World Series in a hotel room. Not surprisingly, the Yankees lost both games and the World Series to the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks. Needless to say, to this day, I still believe that I am the reason why the Yankees lost that World Series.
So, how does an otherwise logical and (seemingly) sane person become totally illogical when it comes to sports?
According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of Americans admitted to being at least a little superstitious. According to psychologist Stuart Vyse, Ph.D., superstitions are linked to a perceived lack of control. When people feel as though they are not in control, they are apt to develop superstitions and the more important uncontrollable the situation is, the more likely the person is to develop some means to feel more in control. Vyse believes that our need to understand why things happen causes us to develop a sense of false certainty, which is more comfortable than uncertainty. Noted researcher, Jerome Kagan (1972) wrote that our need to resolve uncertainty is a major determinant of our behavior.
Psychologists who study superstitious behavior have found that most people occasionally engage in superstitious thinking or behavior – sometimes without even realizing what they are doing. For example, when was the last time you knocked on wood, crossed your fingers or avoided walking under a ladder?
In his book, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, Stuart Vyse noted that while many people perform rituals, such behavior does not necessarily constitute a superstition. The key is whether or not the person ascribes “some kind of magical significance to the ritual.” For example, many athletes have pregame rituals. They follow a routine, which may help them to relax and focus, but that is not superstitious. In contrast, if you believe that you must eat chicken before every game, take batting practice at exactly 5:17 pm and run wind sprints at exactly 7:17 pm (as did Hall of Fame third baseman Wade Boggs), you are superstitious. Boggs readily acknowledged his superstitious behavior, but he said, “Believe me, I have a few superstitions, and they work.” Boggs is far from the only superstitious athlete. Michael Jordan always wore his lucky UNC shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform and tennis star Rafael Nadal always points the labels of his drinking bottles toward the end of the court where he is about to play.
A ritual is an action that is repeated because it has some symbolic value. Most cultures have rituals that are rooted in tradition or religion, but we do not imbue these rituals with magical powers. For example, we may eat turkey on Thanksgiving, but we do not do so because we think it will bring us good luck. In contrast, a superstitious behavior can include rituals, but those rituals are performed to ensure a desired outcome.
Superstitious behaviors develop as a result of a simple reinforcement process. When a certain action is followed by a desired consequence, we tend repeat that action. We confuse proximity with causality, or as statisticians like to say, “correlation does not imply causation.”
Daniel Wann (2013) studied “loyal fans,” and he found that loyal fans believed that by following their superstitious rituals, they could affect the game’s outcome. The most common superstitious behaviors involve wearing certain clothing, but many loyal fans also believe that a game’s outcome can be influenced by what they eat or drink, whether or not they watch the game and whether or not they have their good-luck charm.
In game 1 of the 1998 World Series, the Yankees were down by three runs and in danger of losing the game. I was watching the game in my kitchen and when the inning started, I opened a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Shortly thereafter, Chuck Knoblauch hit a 3-run homerun and Tino Martinez hit a grand slam. The Yankees scored 7-runs in the inning and they were on their way to sweeping the Padres in four games. Since I was eating ice cream at the time, a new superstition was born – ice cream inning. Ever since, if the Yankees are in need of a rally, out comes the ice cream!
So, as baseball’s playoffs get underway, let’s all do what we can to help the Yankees. You can cross our fingers or knock on wood, but I’ll be standing in my kitchen, tapping on the cabinets and eating mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Kagan, J. (1972). Motives and development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22(1), 51-66.
Vyse, Stuart A. (2013). Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition – Updated Edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wann, D. L., Grieve, F. G., End, C., Zapalac, R. K., Lanter, J. R., Pease, D. G., Fellows, B., Oliver, K., & Wallace, A. (2013). Examining the superstitions of sport fans: Types of superstitions, perceptions of impact, and relationship with team identification. Athletic Insight, 5, 21-44.