From Skeptical Inquirer, March-April 2018 Do Superstitious Rituals Work?

Let us stipulate that there is no magic. Sleight-of-hand, deception, illusion, and conjuring, yes, but no “real” magic. On this, most science-minded people agree. But when it comes to superstition, there has always been an additional, less obvious question. Of course, superstitions do not have a magical effect on the world, but do they have psychological benefits? Could superstitions make difficult situations easier to handle? Furthermore, if they have an emotional or psychological benefit, could they also produce better performance in situations where skill is involved? The psychological benefits of superstitions—if they exist—would not be expected to change your luck at the roulette wheel, but perhaps an actor’s pre-performance ritual could reduce anxiety, allowing for better acting.

Then in 2010 there was a great advance—or so it seemed. Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany conducted the now famous golf ball study (Damisch et al. 2010). Participants were given a putter and asked to hit a golf ball into a cup on the carpet of a laboratory. Half the participants were handed a ball and told, “This ball has been lucky today.” The other half were told, “This is your ball.” As it turned out, more than 80 percent of the German participants reported believing in the concept of good luck, and when the results were tallied, the researchers discovered that participants in the lucky ball group sank significantly more of their putts than the other group. Furthermore, Damisch et al. replicated this result with different tasks and several different luck-activating superstitions. Of course, there still was no magic, but these studies seemed to have demonstrated that believing in luck gave participants the confidence to perform better than they otherwise would. A phenomenon long speculated to be a possibility had finally been demonstrated in a laboratory setting.

Except there was a catch. As I reported in my January 2017 online column (“Your Unlearning Report: The Trouble with Empathy, Implicit Bias, and Believing in Luck,” available at, a group of researchers at Dominion University in Illinois conducted a replication of the Damisch et al. study in 2014 and found no luck-enhancing effect on putting (Calin-Jageman and Caldwell 2014). Furthermore, the 2014 study included over three times as many golfers and was a pre-registered study—meaning that the design and methods of the study were publicly posted prior the start of data collection. The Dominion study was much more thorough and scientifically sound, and it came up empty. So, at least with respect to the effect of luck on putting performance, the jury is still out.

Please do the following ritual: Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.

In a series of experiments, Brooks et al. showed that participants who performed this ritual did better on the task—high-pressure math problems or singing—than those who did not. Furthermore, they were able to show that the effect was mediated by a reduction in anxiety. So performing a symbolic ritual prior to a high-anxiety task reduced anxiety, which in turn produced better performance.

For one group of participants, this new sequence was described as “random behaviors,” and for another it was described as a “ritual.” Finally, a third group did not perform the sequence of actions at all. The results showed that the ritual group had lower anxiety and performed significantly better on a timed math test than either the random behaviors group or the no ritual group. The authors suggested that merely calling the sequence a “ritual” was sufficient to give it the necessary symbolic function to reduce anxiety and increase performance. Brooks et al. did not find that participants had an increased sense of control, which was surprising because a desire for control has often been cited as a motivation for superstitious behavior (e.g., Hamerman and Johar 2013). Instead, the effect on performance was entirely due to reduced anxiety.
Does this mean that superstitious rituals work? Yes and no. The Brooks et al. study suggests that superstitious rituals do work—not because they are superstitious but because they are rituals. Any old ritual will do, including writing numbers on a piece of paper, crinkling it up, and throwing it away
You don’t have to believe in the efficacy of a ritual for it to help you feel better. All of these studies are preliminary, and it will be important to see whether they hold up when other researchers try to reproduce the results. Furthermore, there is much more we need to know about why and how rituals work. But these early findings are quite interesting.
For skeptics who would like to discourage superstitious and irrational thinking, this line of research has both a downside and an upside. The downside is that the research by Brooks et al. suggests that superstitious rituals do work—not because they are magic but because they are rituals. As a result, the calming features of superstitious rituals and the improved performance they engender are likely to sustain superstitious thinking. The superstitious person’s beliefs will appear to be validated. The upside, however, is that skeptics now have a ready response to those who claim their superstitions work: Yes, your superstitions work, but it’s the ritual, not the superstition that’s making you feel better. Any old ritual will do.


Brooks, Alison, Juliana Schroeder, Jane Risen, et al. 2016. Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 137: 71–85.

Calin-Jageman, Robert J., and Tracy L. Caldwell. 2014. Replication of the superstition and performance study by Damisch, Stoberock, and Mussweiler (2010). Social Psychology 45(3): 239–45.

Damisch, Lysann, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler. 2010. Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science 21(7): 1014–20. Available online at

Hamerman, Eric J., and Gita V. Johar. 2013. Conditioned superstition: Desire for control and consumer brand preferences. Journal of Consumer Research 40(3): 428–43.

Norton, Michael I., and Francesca Gino. 2014. Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143(1): 266–72.


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