Superstitious rituals are defined as unusual, repetitive, rigid behaviour that is perceived to have a positive effect by the actor, whereas in reality there is no causal link between the behaviour and the outcome of an event (Womack, 1992).
B. F. Skinner’s famous ‘Hungry Pidgeon’ experiment helps explain why sports people develop superstitions through operant conditioning. Skinner (1948) gave pigeons food at irregular intervals. When observing the pigeons it was clear to see that they had developed different behaviours. The pigeons kept doing what they did at the moment that the food was administered. For example, a pigeon that had just turned its head continued turning its head and checking for food; and a pigeon that happened to be turning counter-clockwise continued turning counter-clockwise and looking for food. The behaviour was difficult to unlearn because the reinforcement (food) was administered at irregular intervals. In this experiment the pigeon believed that if it repeated the action then food will be delivered, it behaves as if there were a causal relationship between the two. Skinner (1953) later suggested that seeing a causal relationship between behaviour and the ‘’consequences’’ also could explain the occurrence and maintenance of superstition in humans.
The craziest superstition I have heard of, and my favourite is from South African cricket batsman Neil McKenzie. McKenzie went through a spell of attaching his cricket bats to the ceiling of the dressing room before he went out to bat. This bizarre superstition started after he scored a century on the day his team-mates played the practical joke of taping his bat to the ceiling. Other superstitious cricketers include the great Sachin Tendulkar who always put on his left pad first while going out to bat. Steve Waugh is another one, he used a red rag to wipe away some sweat during a Test match in which he went on to score a hundred. He then kept the red rag in his left pocket when batting for the rest of his career.
Cricket is not the only sport where athletes are superstitious and partake in superstitious rituals. In basketball, Michael Jordan while playing for the Chicago Bulls wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his uniform. In Tennis, Serena Williams believes much of her winning ways are the result of closely followed routines, these superstitions include bringing her shower sandals to the court, tying her shoelaces a specific way and bouncing the ball five times before her first serve. In golf, Tiger Woods wears a red shirt on tournament Sundays. There are many other athletes across different sports who also have superstitions, but cricketers, in particular batsmen seem to be the most superstitious.
An experiment by Damisch, Stoberock and Mussweiler (2010) suggested that the activation of a superstition prior to a performance task can improve subsequent performance. They did more work to try and determine the psychological mechanisms that produce these effects. They found that the performance benefits were produced by changes in perceived self-efficacy; activating a superstition boosted participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improved their performance.
In conclusion cricketers, and more specifically batsmen are so superstitious because batting offers failure much more frequently than it does success, therefore batsmen cling onto something that brought them success in the past. They would feel that the positive correlation between the superstitious behaviour and success (scoring runs) should not be ignored. A batsman will also relish the boost of confidence and the sense of control that superstitions provide given that there are so many uncontrollable factors when batting that affect performance (pitch, weather, umpire decisions). In the scientific sense superstitions are irrational and although they may provide a psychological benefit the superstitious act carried out does not actually work. But superstitions take over behaviour because our brains try and repeat whatever actions precede success, even if we cannot see how they have had their influence.
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About Lauren Onojaife
Sports Psychology Graduate. Cricket Enthusiast. Keen Crossfitter. Working to Improve the Provision of PE & Sport in Primary Schools.