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Seriously, do lucky charms and superstitious rituals actually work?

I thought I’d follow up on last week’s Self-Coaching podcast discussion on luck with today’s topic on the improbable truth that lucky charms, rituals and various superstitions can actually have a beneficial effect on our behavior, health, and attitude. 

But how can this be? We know that superstitions or the belief that an object or behavior has the power to influence an outcome is, well, not logical. Yet, researchers have found that people who have luck on their side feel greater self-efficacy (i.e., the ability to believe and trust ourselves to handle life)—and this belief actually enhances both mental and physical performance.

You might want to listen to this week’s podcast (go to ‘podcast’ in tool bar above) as I fondly recall my aunt Tessie, who, in order to ward off the dreaded malauccio (a.k.a., the evil eye) would perform a sacred ritual consisting of dripping drops of oil into a bowl of water held over an afflicted neighbor’s head while mummering a century’s old prayer. Was she successful? Absolutely! People would come from far and wide to seek relief from their struggles. But why was she successful? Was this a form of hypnosis? I think so. I argue that the power inherent in hypnosis has to do with a subject’s unwavering belief that they’ve actually been hypnotized. Belief in something can be extremely powerful, even healing.  

Athletes tend to be extremely superstitious. Wade Boggs, for example, the third base, hall of famer, was said to have had a unique game day ritual. He would consume a whole chicken before every game, wake up at exactly the same time in the morning, and do his sprinting at exactly 7:17 PM. In fact, Mr. Boggs inherited the moniker of, ‘Chicken Man.’ 

More seriously, take someone with OCD, where various rituals need to be performed (“have to” be performed) before one can move on. These rituals are designed to reduce anxiety, but if you dig a bit deeper you can see that the OCD ritual is designed (not necessarily consciously) for something more ambitious, to control fate—i.e., “if I don’t knock exactly 8 times on the dashboard of my car before starting off, I may have an accident.” We become prisoners of our superstitions, petrified to take a chance of risking not doing or trusting our ritual.

Is this any different than knocking wood where you’re trying to control bad things from happening? I call these particular actions prophylactic charms/behaviors. Whereas most charms (rabbit’s foot, four-leaf clovers, etc.) are to geared to bring us good luck, prophylactic charms/behaviors are meant to ward off bad luck.

What about you? Do you have a lucky number? What about that lucky tie or handbag? Perfume or aftershave? Do you prophylactically reach for a piece of wood to tap if a friend says to you, “Wow! I can’t believe it; you haven’t been sick in years.” 

Seriously, maybe you should hold on to that rabbit’s foot, horseshoe, or four-leaf clover. 

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