Sport and Superstition

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Mercutio
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Joined: Fri Jun 04, 2004 2:30 am

Sport and Superstition

Post by Mercutio »

The question on the subforum heading (why aren't there more skeptics in sports?) got me thinking. There is, of course, some nice research on this--anyone interested can check out Vyse's book http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/de ... 5?v=glance "believing in magic" (I forget the subtitle).

Skinner's paper "superstition in the pigeon" showed how behavior can be shaped by non-contingent but contiguous reinforcers (IOW, you do X, something good happens to you that has nothing to do with your having done X, you are now more likely to do X in the future). You eat chicken before the game, have a great game, and are more likely to eat chicken before the next game (that one is Wade Boggs, BTW). You tug at your wristband or glove as you settle yourself in the batter's box, get a hit, you are more likely to tug at your gloves next time (Nomar). You refuse to wash your "lucky shirt", or to shave, or to change socks, as long as your winning streak continues (our entire hockey team here at the university).

Now, here's the cool part (for me, anyway); the better (or more successful) a player you are, the more chances you have had for some random behavior to be linked with success. According to research that Vyse cites (I can't find his book in my messy office to find the exact source), the percentage of players reporting superstitions is higher in professional sport than in college, higher in college than in high school. The better you get at your sport, the more likely you are to be superstitious. The correlation is likely to be seen as evidence for the effectiveness of lucky charms, rituals, etc...but if Skinner is right, the causation actually goes the other way--success leads to superstition, rather than the other way around.
Phil
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Location: Houston

Re: Sport and Superstition

Post by Phil »

Mercutio wrote:--success leads to superstition, rather than the other way around.
Makes a lot of sense really.

I worked for the Houston Rockets for a year as a PR rep, but got to hang out with the players on a regular basis. I have friends that are professional volleyball players, both indoor and on the beach. My best friend has worked in baseball for 20 years in the minors and the majors, so I've been around professional athletes quite a bit.

One of the first things you notice about many elite athletes, once you get past their stunning physical abilities, is that thay are highly competitive. I mean, some are obsessively competitive.

You couple that extreme competitive nature with the overwhelming pressures to succeed placed on them by the fans, agents, media, etc. and it's not difficult to understand how an athlete would grasp at anything they think will give them an edge, and keep them in the spotlight.

I do, however, know some athletes who rely solely on their abilities to perform, and who are not superstitious in the least. I've noticed, too, that they tend to be more thoughtful people in general.
Luciana
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Location: Rio de Janeiro

Post by Luciana »

The two coaches of the current Brazilian soccer team (Zagallo, and the other I forgot), men who have a long list of successes in their curriculum, are extremely superstitions. I was impressed with this in a recent interview I watched. They are downright obsessed.

It is indeed sad that they have to ascribe magical properties to objects and numbers and behaviors in order to justify a success that depends so much on their own talents and effort.

However, all sports that I know of - I don't know that much - have a "luck" factor. Even chess, if you consider that the psychological conditions of the player can play a role during a match. It is bad luck for a chess player to have a headache during a match, for example.

And "luck"... well, who's to explain it? How can we accept something that goes out of our control, specially if you have trained extensively to cover all possibilities, even though the inevitable can always happen?

Superstitions are so prevalent in soccer... I can't speak for other sports, but soccer I follow a little bit - it's almost impossible to be ignorant of it if you're Brazilian - and I can help but be amused... all those men being so superstitions, even though they like to ascribe that property to women... very, very interesting indeed. :)
Hexxenhammer
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Post by Hexxenhammer »

I relate everything back to Dungeons and Dragons, sorry. Geeks are no less superstitious. Certain dice are used to roll for certain things. Statements like "This dice always rolls high when I want to roll low, and low when I want to roll high" "I need my lucky saving throw dice" are muttered all the time. This is probably more like the luck or superstition of a gambler, but it all stems from the same place.
lofgeornost
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Post by lofgeornost »

Is there any connection between superstition and some kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour? I'd imagine Boggs could've gone into a slump, decided to have a steak instead, hit for the cycle that night, and from then it's steak before each game (hopefully the superstition gives out before the arteries). But when I watch Nomar I wonder if he's even conscious of what he's doing with those glove straps - looks like a rote activity in an intense situation.
Vic Daring
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Post by Vic Daring »

This bleeds over off the field to the stands and the fans at home as well.

I don't believe in anything, but I'm very careful not to offend the Baseball Gods, and I'm very careful to wear the right hat, sit in the right spot, drink from the right cup...

It's pathetic really.
RedShift
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Post by RedShift »

Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition Vyse, Stuart A (OUP, 1997)

Many studies of age differences have shown that older people are more skeptical than young people, but others have found the opposite relationship ... In contrast [to the 1990 Gallop poll] Buhrmann and Zaugg's research found that older scholastic basketball players were more superstitious than younger ones, but this results is somehat misleading. All of the athletes in this study were quite young, ranging in age from 12 to 22 -- much younger than most of the Gallop respondants. As a result, the greater superstition of college-age players probably reflects more experience playing the game and a more complete immersion in its perculiar subculture.

p36 (ref: Buhrmann, H. G., & Zaugg, M.K (1981) Supersitions among basketball players: An investigation of various forms of superstitious beliefs and behaviour among competitive basketballers at the junior high school to university level Journal of Sport Behavior 4, 163-174)

Cool book, I'm about 1/3 of the way through.
Thanz
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Location: Centre of the Universe

Post by Thanz »

Vic Daring wrote:This bleeds over off the field to the stands and the fans at home as well.

I don't believe in anything, but I'm very careful not to offend the Baseball Gods, and I'm very careful to wear the right hat, sit in the right spot, drink from the right cup...

It's pathetic really.
It seems that many sports fans are the same. Like the research that Mercutio cites, I imagine that the superstitions increase the larger a fan one is of a team. If you are ahuge fan of team X, the more likely you are to paint yourself in team colours before the game and the more likely you are to have a lucky [whatever].

I am not immune to this, but of course, the universe revolves around me. In 1993, Game 6 of the world series (Carter home run) I was in one of those bars that provides peanuts in the shell, and you dump the shells on the floor. Well, I started the game eating the peanuts and the Jays are winning. I stop eating the peanuts, and all of a sudden we are losing. So, I grab the peanuts and start furiously munching. Next thing you know we get a rally going and Carter hits the shot to left.

All because of the peanuts, of course.
Mercutio
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Joined: Fri Jun 04, 2004 2:30 am

Post by Mercutio »

Glad you like the book, redshift...

So if what Vyse says about athletes is true, there are some predictions that can be made about other professions as well. The more one's profession depends upon the vaguaries of chance, the more superstition one should see. So...are stockbrokers superstitious? What other professions should or should not be superstitious, based on the idea of uncontrolability?
Jeff
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Post by Jeff »

Merc,
How about the Sports Illustrated jinx? I first ran across it in Gilovich's "How We Know What Isn't So" and have been using it as an example of statistical regression to the mean for quite a while.

One point is that Skinner's pigeons were performing as a function of noncontingent positive reinforcement. A number of human examples seem to involve negative reiforcement - noncontingent escape and/or avoidance.
Mercutio
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Joined: Fri Jun 04, 2004 2:30 am

Post by Mercutio »

Jeff wrote:Merc,
How about the Sports Illustrated jinx? I first ran across it in Gilovich's "How We Know What Isn't So" and have been using it as an example of statistical regression to the mean for quite a while.
Hey, I have heard there is an equivalent jinx for models--I can't remember if it is Cosmo or what, but same regression to the mean, only easier on the eye.
One point is that Skinner's pigeons were performing as a function of noncontingent positive reinforcement. A number of human examples seem to involve negative reiforcement - noncontingent escape and/or avoidance.
Which looks a lot more like Seligman's "learned helplessness" paradigm. Interestingly, we can get learned helplessness in humans with positive reinforcement as well as with punishment.

Hmmm...perhaps it also relates to Alloy and Abramson's "depressive realism" stuff; maybe (just thinking out loud here, not backed up with research that I know of) the same reinforcement schedules (i.e., non-contingent) can lead to both helplessness and superstitious behavior, perhaps depending on how much (illusory) control you perceive in the situation. Those who (accurately) perceive noncontingency will tend to exhibit helplessness, while those who (falsely) perceive contingency will behave superstitiously.

Arguably (again, thinking aloud and without a seatbelt), the superstitious route is the adaptive one! If it kept the organism active rather than passive, in an environment where activity will eventually get you somewhere, superstition could be selected for. (thus, the "sadder but wiser" subtitle to A&A's paper--the illusion of control, while an illusion, is an advantageous optimism....maybe.)