Home > Metacognition > Are you really going to do better on a test because you’re wearing your lucky socks? Probably, but not for the reason you think.

Are you really going to do better on a test because you’re wearing your lucky socks? Probably, but not for the reason you think.

Superstitions weave their way into many people’s lives, and they can look different to everyone.  For some, these superstitions might work their way into their daily routine in ways they barely notice: refusing to walk under a ladder, tossing salt over their shoulder when they accidentally spill it on the table, or shuddering when a friend accidentally shatters the mirror in their travel bag.  Even if you don’t subscribe to these common superstitions, you might have a lucky charm that you keep on you before a job interview or big test.  Superstitions are common in people all over the world, and it’s estimated that over 40% of Americans believe in superstitions (Taher et al. 2020).  Personally, one of the consistent good luck charms in my life comes in the form of the red and blue socks I wear on the day of important Patriots games.  Not only is it important that my father and I remember to wear our lucky socks, but it is crucial that the red sock ends up on the right foot, while the blue sock is worn on the left.  So, what defines a superstition, and if they truly have no effect on any given situation, why do so many people believe in them?  

Superstitions are particularly common in athletes and students, who face performance-based tasks regularly.

As reported by Damisch and colleagues (2010), a superstition is an irrational belief that unrelated circumstances, objects, or an individual’s actions will affect the outcome of a situation when they have no direct or logical effect on events.  So, while I feel like my lucky socks have something to do with the Patriots’ many Super Bowl wins in the past two decades, they’re considered a superstition as the Patriots don’t actually have any reason to play better when I wear them during games.  Then why do I feel better wearing them before a big game?  People are more likely to exhibit superstitious behaviors when under high psychological stress, which are typically in situations that are uncertain where they feel as though they have low levels of control.  In fact, in a study in which people were put under high and low-stress conditions, researchers found that those who were put in high-stress conditions were more likely to show a desire for control, and moreover, those who showed a greater desire for control were more likely to knock on wood when questions prompted the superstitious response, which is a superstition designed to prevent an event from occurring (Keinan, 2002).  Situations that inspire these emotions are typically performance-based tasks, and as a result, superstitions are particularly common in athletes and students, who are faced with these tasks regularly in the sports they play, or the exams and projects that riddle their weekly activities.  In fact, even Michael Jordan subscribed to superstitions. Throughout his entire NBA career, he wore his college basketball shorts underneath his uniform (Damisch et al., 2010).  

Self-Efficacy, Metacognition, and Mental Representations

If the superstitious items and behaviors themselves have no effect on the events they supposedly influence, why do beliefs about superstitions remain?  Well, it can be explained through the concept of self-efficacy.  Self-efficacy is the belief in your own ability to effectively organize and execute a series of actions in order to succeed in a task.  For example, if you were told to clean your room, you might first plan to pick up the clothes off your floor, then make your bed, and organize your desk.  Your self-efficacy in this scenario would be your judgment of your ability to plan these tasks out and execute them.  The idea is similar to the idea of metacognition, and as I’ll explain, the concepts are closely related.  Metacognition is our ability to assess our knowledge or performance.  Essentially, it is our understanding of what we know.  In situations like tests and other tasks that require good performance, like sports, it allows for us to judge what our performance will be in the given task (Aurah, 2013).  The distinction comes in the fact that self-efficacy concerns your ability to learn the actions required to master a task, whereas metacognition would be your assessment of your current level of mastery of the task.  Turns out, we aren’t always as good at metacognition as we might think, and this post here provides more info about that!  

A study by Damisch and colleagues (2010) suggested that activation of a superstition, through a priming statement from a laboratory interviewer or other means, boosts an individual’s perceived self-efficacy, therefore increasing their confidence in their ability to master a task.  In this scenario, a “priming statement” from the lab interviewer came in the form of a statement like “I’ll keep my fingers crossed” or “This ball has been the lucky ball all day!”  Researchers in the study suggested that the increase in performance that they saw in a variety of tasks following a researcher activating superstitious thoughts was a result of increased task persistence.  That is, participants were more likely to spend more time trying to master a task if they believed that it was within their ability to do so.  Where one of the tasks was to putt a golf ball from a set distance, the participants were more likely to take time practicing with the putter before initiating their recorded trial.  As a result of this persistence, individuals who had demonstrated this increase of self-efficacy as activated by the presence of superstitious behavior performed better in a variety of tasks.  Bandura (1989) suggested that in performance-based activities, those with higher self-efficacy also experienced a difference in anticipatory mental representations before executing performance-based tasks than those who perceived themselves as having low self-efficacy at the task.  In more simple terms, people who expected themselves to be able to execute the actions needed to complete a task successfully were more likely to visualize the task in ways that served as a model for success, and as a result, they problem solved more efficiently as they were likely to rehearse solutions to foreseeable problems.  On the contrary, those who expected themselves to fail at a task were more likely to undermine their execution of the task and focus on mental representations of simulations of failure scenarios.  Mental representations are the mental imagery we conjure up for things that are not necessarily occurring in front of us.  If you’re wearing your lucky shoes in a sports match, you might visualize yourself performing well in the match as you expect to do so, and in doing so, you are providing yourself with models of how you should play in the match.  If you are without your lucky shoes, and you, therefore, expect the game to go badly, you’re more likely to dwell on the ways in which it could go badly, and you would then be less prepared for the game.  To learn more about mental representations and how they might impact your day-to-day life in other, unexpected ways, check out this post.

Superstitions, Self-Efficacy, and their effects on Memory Test Performance

In an experiment by Damisch and colleagues (2010), participants brought in a lucky charm before completing a memory test in which 36 cards that displayed geometric figures were turned face down.  The deck was composed of 18 identical pairs of shapes, and when two identical cards were pulled in succession, they remained face up.  Half of the participants were allowed to keep their lucky charm for the experiment, while half had their lucky charm taken into another room for the duration of the task.  Researchers found that those who kept their lucky charm for the duration of the experiment reported higher perceived self-efficacy, and performed better in the memory task than those who were separated from their lucky charm.  This suggested that superstition led to superior performance as a result of the increased self-efficacy due to superstitions.  Before completing the memory task, participants likely created mental representations of the methods required to, or assisting in a good performance, envisioning successful techniques that would help to succeed in the memory task.  As mentioned earlier, this is because high perceptions of self-efficacy promote the creation of cognitive simulations of effective courses of action, and the effect works bidirectionally — these mental simulations further increase an individual’s confidence in their ability to master a skill (Bandura, 1989).  As a result, during the experiment, participants with a lucky charm and thus higher self-efficacy likely had primed effective strategies, that is to say, the strategies envisioned and the actions required to execute them were more likely to become activated.  So while a lucky seat or a lucky shirt might not help you in your exams directly, you might do the work yourself through your confidence in your ability with the lucky charm on you. Furthermore, in an anagram task that had a similar experimental setup in which half of the participants with a lucky charm and half without were asked to generate as many words as possible from a consistent string of eight letters, and on average, participants with their personal lucky charm thought of more than 50% more words than those without it.  Surveying before the task revealed that those with their lucky charms displayed higher self-efficacy, setting higher goals for themselves and persisting longer on the anagram task at hand (Damisch et al., 2010). 

So, how can this all help you?  If your lucky socks have never let you down on an exam before, and you truly believe that they work, then you might just be doing some of their magical work yourself.  Regardless of whether the socks are actually magical, if you believe that your socks somehow will help you when faced with a situation that is causing you high stress, your increased self-efficacy, your persistence when faced with a difficult step in the process, and the mental representations of successful strategies for dealing with the situation might be just what you need to perform better in a task. 

References

Aurah, C.M. (2013) The Effects of Self-efficacy Beliefs and Metacognition on Academic Performance: A Mixed-Method Study. American Journal of Educational Research, 1(8). 334-343. doi: 10.12691/education-1-8-11

Bandura, A. (1989). Regulation of cognitive processes through perceived self-efficacy. Developmental Psychology, 25(5), 729–735. Doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.25.5.729

Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler T. (2010). Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance. Psychological Science, 21(7), 1014 –1020. doi: 10.1177/0956797610372631

Keinan, G. (2002). The Effects of Stress and Desire for Control on Superstitious Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(1), 102–108. doi: 10.1177/0146167202281009

Taher, M., Pashaeypoor, S., Cheraghi, M. A., Karimy, M., & Hoseini, A. (2020). Superstition in health beliefs: Concept exploration and development. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 9(3), 1325–1330. doi: 10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_871_19

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