Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, was famous for his pregame rituals. Before each outing, he ate chicken, took batting practice at 5:17 p.m., did wind sprints at 7:17 p.m., and fielded 150 ground balls. He also wrote the Hebrew word for life (“chai”) in the dirt before going up to bat. Did these superstitions do any good?
Some new research suggests they might have, and that anyone — from Olympic athletes to office workers — can benefit from the same kinds of routines. So, how does one go about testing the power of superstition? Obviously, part of the answer includes the 1970s rock band Journey, sodium chloride, and crumpled up pieces of paper. But more on that later.
The research, conducted by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks and several collaborators, grew out of research Brooks had been doing on anxiety. Most people feel anxious several times a day, but there are few reliable ways of calming down. Feeling anxiety well before facing a challenge can motivate preparation, but, during a task, it can eat up mental resources.
Meanwhile, Brooks says, “We had been doing some other work about rituals and how they’re fascinating and strange and pervasive, and we thought, ‘You know what, people use rituals to try to relax, and I wonder if they actually work.’ ” Some existing evidence had shown that pre-performance routines can help, such as bouncing a basketball a certain way before taking a free-throw shot. But the findings were inconsistent, and if routines did work, it wasn’t clear whether they merely prepared motor action or had some higher meaning for athletes.
The researchers first explored how people use rituals in their everyday lives. They asked 400 online subjects if they’d used a ritual before the last difficult task they’d felt anxious about, and to describe it or another ritual they’d performed in the past. The researchers left “ritual” undefined for the subject, but in their paper, forthcoming in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, they define it as “a predefined sequence of symbolic actions often characterized by formality and repetition that lacks direct instrumental purpose.” They contrast rituals with habits and routines, which have no symbolism, and superstitions, which are about luck.
About half the respondents said they’d used a ritual before their last difficult task. Of the rituals described, most did not involve luck or religion, but most did involve symbolism — some feature that connected it to the upcoming activity but was not necessary, such as putting cleats on in a particular way before a game.
The researchers then turned to the effectiveness of a made-up ritual. Eighty-five college students were told they’d have to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in front of an experimenter, with a bonus for accuracy as measured by the karaoke machine. Half were asked to first 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.” Those who performed the ritual were less anxious than the others, and as a result they sang better. In a companion experiment, being told they would have to sing raised student’s heart rates, but then performing the ritual lowered them.
To explore the effectiveness of rituals in another scenario, 400 online participants were asked to complete eight math problems, described either as “a very difficult IQ test” with time limits and monetary penalties, thus inducing anxiety, or simply as “fun math puzzles” with monetary bonuses. As predicted, triggering anxiety harmed people’s performance — unless they were first asked to perform the paper-crinkling ritual.
“The surprising part is how effective rituals are for improving performance,” said Kathleen Vohs, a business professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied rituals but was not involved in this work. “I like that a lot. It’s surprising and fresh.”
So rituals work, but why? There are four possibilities, according to Juliana Schroeder, a business school professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a collaborator on the paper. The first two focus on actions: Performing structured movement might reduce anxiety by giving people a sense of order, or it might require so much attention that it distracts from the source of anxiety. The next two focus on higher meaning. Rituals could act as placebos if people associate them with better performance, or they could involve specific symbolism, such as throwing your anxieties in the trash.
Relevant to the fourth explanation, other research has demonstrated the power of enacting metaphors to change how we feel. A 2013 paper in Psychological Science reported that when teenagers wrote positive thoughts about their bodies, their attitudes about their bodies improved — unless they threw their notes in the trash, thus trashing their thoughts. A 2010 paper in the same journal reported that when subjects wrote about a regretful experience, placing the page in an envelope increased “psychological closure” and reduced negative feelings about the event.
So Brooks and her collaborators conducted another experiment to tease apart the possible mechanisms of rituals’ effectiveness. To induce anxiety, they told 120 adults they would have to take a timed math test that would indicate intelligence. A third of them were asked to perform the following set of actions, described to them as “a short ritual.” “Please count out loud slowly up to 10 from zero, then count back down to zero. You should say each number out loud and write each number on the piece of paper in front of you as you say it. You may use the entire paper. Sprinkle salt on your paper. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.” Another third were given the same instructions, but with the actions described as “a few random behaviors” instead of a “ritual.” A final third simply sat for 30 seconds.
Afterward, those who’d performed the “ritual” rated how helpful or harmful it was; the average rating was in the middle of the scale — neither helpful nor harmful. And yet they performed better on the test than subjects who had just sat there. More importantly, subjects who’d performed the same actions described as “random behaviors” did not perform better than passive subjects.
It appears that ritualized actions improve performance because they hold higher meaning — they work only when conceived of as a ritual. This experiment also hints that the rituals may act through a general placebo effect surrounding rituals, rather than through specific symbolism, as this ritual was pretty bare-bones. But at this point the researchers don’t know if subjects are creating their own specific meaning out of the ritual’s elements.
“There’s been a lot of work on trying to reduce anxiety,” Schroeder says, “and it’s been hard to find effective tools than can work short term.” One effective strategy is the use of metaphors, as mentioned earlier. Another is the reframing of anxiety as excitement — which Brooks has also found to improve karaoke performance — but this trick can only translate one high-energy state to another. Research also reveals the power of expressive writing, but you can’t always sit down with a journal right before giving a PowerPoint presentation.
When asked how elaborate a ritual needs to be to improve performance, Brooks said, “It could be one step, like spinning in a circle. They can be really short, and you can do them anywhere, as long as it means something to you.” And, based on subjects’ ratings of the counting ritual’s helpfulness, they’ll work whether you believe they will or not.
Boggs and other athletes frequently appear on lists of “silly” sports superstitions, but this research shows that their actions are not so silly. “Lots of people use rituals naturally,” Brooks says. “The rituals that an outsider might scoff at, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge, because they can actually be helpful.”
Perhaps those who don’t perform rituals are the zany ones.
Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”