Scientists have come up with a surprising explanation for why Michael Jordan could seemingly soar through the air during his spectacular career in basketball.
Throughout his professional career he wore two pairs of shorts -- the ones we all saw on television, but beneath the Chicago Bulls uniform he also wore the blue University of North Carolina shorts from his spectacular days at the college level.
No, the researchers aren't suggesting that Michael became "air Jordan" because his shorts were too tight. But the fact that he believed his college shorts could bring him luck might have made his performance a tad better.
The researchers, at the University of Cologne, also note that extraordinary talent, hard work and physical conditioning were probably more important than his shorts.
What it all boils down to, according to four experiments the scientists conducted in Germany, is sometimes superstitions actually work. Not because they bring luck (either good or bad.) It's because believing that a rabbit's foot brings good luck can increase self confidence (luck is on his or her side) and thus the true believer performs better and sets higher goals.
Whether they are right or wrong, the researchers deserve credit for boldly marching into a mine-field to test out their theories.
Even they admit that "superstitions are typically seen as inconsequential creations of irrational minds," or as others have put it, false beliefs based on ignorance. So how could they possibly work?
Well, in the vernacular of the day, let's be clear about this. They aren't saying a good luck charm can actually bring good luck.
They are saying that the belief in the charm can of itself affect the outcome of a mental or physical challenge by boosting self confidence. The human brain, as numerous other experiments have shown, is not all that difficult to trick.
Lysann Damisch, the lead author of the study, which was published in the current issue of Psychological Science, admits to being a sports fan. And over the years she has noticed that "very often athletes, also famous athletes, hold superstitions." She notes that Serena Williams once admitted wearing the same pair of socks throughout a long tennis tournament, and Tiger Woods always wears a blood-red shirt on the last day of a golf tournament.
Numerous other studies have shown that self confidence is crucial when it comes to mastering a challenging task, whether it be basketball or computer games, and the more confidence people have, the better their performance. So Damisch and her colleagues came up with this theory:
"On the basis of these findings, we hypothesize that the proposed performance benefits of superstition are produced by heightened levels of self-efficacy."
Again, it isn't the rabbit's foot that's doing the job. It's the belief in the rabbit's foot.
The researchers recruited 151 students on the Cologne campus who held superstitions, like believing that keeping one's fingers crossed brings good luck, or a lucky charm can do the same thing. The participants were not informed of the real purpose of the experiments, and any students who figured out that it was about the power of superstitions were dropped.