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Keep Your Fingers Crossed: Can 'Magical Thinking' Actually Work?

Do good luck charms actually work? hide caption

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You know people like this, they're the ones with their lucky socks, or their rabbits foot, or their superstitions about throwing salt over their shoulders when it spills, or not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. And you've mocked them. It's silly you say, wearing dirty socks won't end a hitting slump, your good luck shirt won't help you land the job. It's hogwash.

Turns out you're wrong. A new study by some Danish scientists measured people's performance with "lucky" charms. Here's how they did it, the Scientific American says, they invited some people in do some golfing:

...when experimenters handed the golf ball to the participant they either mentioned that the ball “has turned out to be a lucky ball” in previous trials, or that the ball was simply the one “everyone had used so far”. Remarkably, the mere suggestion that the ball was lucky significantly influenced performance, causing participants to make almost two more putts on average.

And then they had people bring in their lucky objects, and then tested them doing memorization tasks with and without the objects in the room. They did better with the rabbit's foot. Why?

...researchers hypothesized that this kind of magical thinking can actually increase participants’ confidence in their own capabilities. That is, believing in lucky charms would increase participants’ “self-efficacy,” and it is this feeling of “I can do this,” not any magical properties of the object itself, that predict success.

Before you run out and de-limb some poor rabbit you should know one more thing. If you believed that last paragraph? It won't work. It's like in Peter Pan, you have to really believe.