During my junior year of college, my favorite baseball team, the New York Mets, made the playoffs. I watched their games with a friend, a fellow Mets fan, in the living room of our house in Michigan. We’d eat peanuts, drink beer, and, during key at-bats, pet the deer head that was mounted on the wall next to the television.
From our seats on the couch hundreds of miles from the stadium, we knew we’d have no impact on the outcome of the game. But during one game, my friend impulsively got up during a crucial moment and patted the deer on the nose. He quickly returned to his seat to watch the Mets deliver a big hit. A superstition was born. Throughout the playoffs, one of us would inevitably pat the deer head in critical situations, hoping it would bring the Mets good luck.
According to Gita V. Johar, a professor of business and senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, who spoke last week during a “Neuroscience of Sports” event, my behavior is not uncommon. As she and her research partner wrote in a report published earlier this year, “preference for lucky products increases with higher levels of desire for control combined with lower levels of perceived ability to control outcomes.” My friend and I really wanted the Mets to win, and we knew we couldn’t do anything about it.
When it comes to athletes’ superstitions, there is legitimate reasoning behind them. It may seem silly for a player to wear a particular pair of socks before a big game. But all that matters is that the player thinks the socks are lucky. If wearing them gives him confidence, there is a chance he will perform better.
Johar said that whether a person is superstitious depends on his or her level of self-efficacy (a person’s assessment of the ability to succeed in a particular situation). In her report, she writes that people with high self-efficacy “should be less superstitious, due to their perceived ability to achieve desired outcomes on their own. In contrast, those with low self-efficacy may engage in superstitious behavior to boost their chances for success.”
You might see various efficacy levels in play when looking at a group of students taking a test, for example, but sports fans watching at home are all equally powerless. My friend and I knew patting the deer was crazy. (At least I did. My friend may have actually thought the deer held magical powers.) But it was also harmless. We were not risking anything with our silly behavior. After it “worked” the first time, we took turns patting the deer in important situations. I decided I’d rather continue to do this than not do it and risk my friend blaming the Mets’ failures on me.
We graduated from college and the deer stayed behind. The Mets have not made the playoffs since. You can say that’s a coincidence. I’m not so sure…
Stay tuned for more coverage of the American Museum of Natural History’s “Neuroscience of Sports” classes. You can
also read my previous blog on concussions.