The students were asked to bring something they believed could bring good luck. They showed up with stuffed animals, wedding rings and lucky stones. Each good luck charm was taken from each student, for the purpose of photographing it, and here a bit of trickery came into play. Half the participants were told the charm could not be returned immediately because of a problem with the camera. The other half got their charm back.
Participants went through a number of mental and physical dexterity tasks. Those who had their lucky charm did significantly better, and set higher goals, than those who were deprived of their stuffed animal, or whatever. The conclusion:
"The present findings suggest that engaging in superstitious thoughts and behaviors may be one way to reach one's top level of performance."
No doubt many readers will find that very difficult to accept. Much evil in the world comes from believing in superstitions that are clearly false. Although borne of ignorance, superstitions intrude often in matters ranging from religion to consumer spending.
Researchers at Baruch College, for example, found that between $800 million and $900 million is lost in business in the United States every Friday the 13th. But is there really any reason to think that Friday the 13th is any unluckier than any other day? Of course not.
So why do so many believe there is magic in certain numbers, such as 888 if you're Chinese, or in the curse of Pele, if you're Hawaiian, or in eating chicken before a baseball game, if you're a famous player? Because, according to one area of research, life sometimes really does come at us too fast.
People turn to superstitions, according to Adam Galinsky, professor of ethics at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, because they don't feel up to the task.
"The less control people have over their lives, the more likely they are to try and regain control through mental gymnastics," Galinsky said when he released the results of his research a couple of years ago.
But now we know, according to the Cologne researchers, that mental gymnastics may actually help. However, believing in the power of your shorts is not likely to turn anyone into the new Michael Jordan. As they note in the conclusion to their study:
"And, with respect to truly outstanding performances, the present findings suggest that it may have been the well-balanced combination of existing talent, hard training, and good-luck underwear that made Michael Jordan perform as well as he did."
Maybe that's why he made all those Hanes commercials.