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The Lure of the Irrational: Why Basketball Players and Birds Fall Prey to Superstition

November 4, 2015

 

Irrational behavior is commonplace in sports. Michael Jordan wore his "lucky" University of North Carolina practice shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts every season, believing that extra layer of shorts made the difference between winning and losing. Tennis ace Serena Williams is rumored to have worn the same unwashed pair of "lucky" socks 162 matches in a row.

 

And the list goes on and on. Are professional sports stars somehow more superstitious than the rest of us? The answer is no.

 

And it's not just humans: famed psychologist B.F. Skinner once reported that pigeons seem to behave superstitiously, too. Although we can, of course, never know for sure what birds are thinking, Skinner observed patterns of strange behavior, like a bird twirling in a circle prior to feeding. He posited that the bird had somehow associated the act of twirling with the act of getting fed.

 

We are all twirlers to some extent. We can trace our irrational behaviors, both collective and personal, to the associative feature of our brains. At the end of the day, the brain's main goal is to keep you alive, and that means being on the lookout for any meaningful patterns. Dark clouds mean a storm is brewing. A stranger charging towards you with their teeth bared is probably not stopping by to say hello.

 

But, following the age-old rule of "better safe than sorry", we tend to experience some false positives as well, meaning we can also see the face of Elvis in the clouds from time to time.

 

When someone draws connections nobody has seen before—like when Lin-Manuel Miranda writes a musical reframing the story of Alexander Hamilton as the ultimate hip-hop narrative—the results can be electrifying and transformative, and we hail his associative brain as genius. But when the Son of Sam connected demonic thoughts to his neighbor's dog, we got serial killing, so clearly there is a tragic downside as well.

 

The real problem arises when the analytical part of the brain fails to react to unfounded associations. It's when the emotional brain sneaks into the driver's seat that we find ourselves donning dirty socks to keep our winning streak alive, or taking a cue from Brazilian Shotokan karate master and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida, who believes he improves his chances of victory by drinking his own urine.

 

So is there a way to thwart these ill-advised leaps?

 

The answer is yes—if you can recognize them ahead of time.

 

Running opposite to the patterns in our behavior requires a preplanned defense, what psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen calls an "implementation intention."

 

An implementation intention involves taking a moment beforehand to form an if/then statement: "If I find myself tempted to put on dirty socks then I'll remind myself that dirty socks can lead to foot fungus." Having a little pre-made course of action at the ready can help re-establish a rational thought process.

 

If this sounds to good to be true, Jeremy Dean, author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits, says that over 800 studies support the efficacy and significance of this strategy.

 

So the next time you're tempted to twirl around a few times before your next meal, or pull up your second pair of shorts, you might consider plugging in an appropriate if/then to reboot your analytical mind.

 

After all, how hard can it really be to stop drinking your own urine?

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