Here's Why Michael Jordan Could Fly

Believing in a superstition may increase confidence and performance.

June 29, 2010, 5:29 PM

July 21, 2010 — -- 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.

Self-Confidence Is Key to Mastering a Challenging Task

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.

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.

Why Do People Believe There Is Magic in Certain Numbers?

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.

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