Superstition might not be so silly, research says


Libby Hakim


Photo: Carolyn Lagattuta

On holiday in Egypt, the locals assumed my "married with no kids" status meant I was unlucky rather than career-minded. A tiny ceramic scarab was pushed into my hand "for baby-making luck". I held it tightly, a warning from my GP about declining fertility with age fresh in my mind. On returning home, the scarab did indeed work like a charm. I became a mum less than a year later.

While relying on a lucky charm for a little extra help in this day and age may seem irrational and somewhat quaint, modern research suggests the idea is not as silly as it sounds. In 2010, researchers at Germany's University of Cologne examined why superstitious practices have prevailed "across different eras and cultures".

Their paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, noted that existing research indicated that lucky charms were popular among athletes and students - and more likely to be used when people experienced feelings of uncertainty, stress and lack of control. Taking those indicators a step further, the German researchers randomly assigned participants to take part in a set of experiments that tested their cognitive and motor skills in various tasks. They were able to show that the activation of a superstition or a good-luck charm led to a better performance. They also found that these performance-enhancing effects were "mediated by an increase in perceived level of self-efficacy".

Annie Gurton, a Sydney-based counsellor with a master's degree in psychotherapy, says this research shows how the power of belief "can be a hugely powerful factor in helping people to achieve and succeed". But, she adds, "it is unclear whether this is because they [believe they] take on superhuman powers - or because they feel protected and safe and therefore more willing to take risks and go the extra mile".


Newcastle electrician Johnny Clifton, 41, has travelled many kilometres across 160 of the 196 countries in the world today, and doesn't mind taking a few risks. He's survived a gorilla attack in Rwanda, an encounter with guerrillas in Colombia, a bashing with boat oars in Benin and being held up at gunpoint in Brazil. His "lucky cap" has helped him scrape through these and many other close calls, he says.

For those inclined to buy their own lucky cap or trinket, some words of caution. First, there's no doubt that being a little streetwise can help in a dangerous situation. But if you still choose to tread the path of superstition, it seems that you must be a true believer in charms for the benefits of perceived improved luck to kick in. "If you don't believe, no amount of pretending will help," says Gurton.

Katie Hill, 32, is another "believer". She started wearing her "lucky pendant" - an intricately carved elephant given to her by her grandmother just before she passed away - before a job interview. "I really wanted to get this job and I was incredibly nervous and stressed before the interview," she says. "I kissed the pendant and said a prayer asking for my grandma's help."

After scoring her dream job, Hill says she's continued wearing the pendant and "things have changed for the better overall".

Divya Hemnani, a Sydney-based coach with degrees in neuroscience and psychology, says that rather than having a lucky charm, a far better approach is to channel the power of belief into yourself. "That will put you in the most powerful position," Hemnani says.

However, she adds that while a good-luck charm can make a person feel "safe and secure", it can also be disempowering - for example, if you lose it. "It's precarious. You don't know what could happen to that object."

Which brings us back to another part of Hill's story: "I forgot to wear the pendant a couple of months ago, which is rare - and I had a car accident."


Stephanie Rice, swimmer: swore by four jump-squats, eight arm-swings, four splashes of water, four goggle-presses and four cap-adjustments before racing.

Genevieve LaCaze, athlete: always wears two rings, a Saint Christopher necklace and pearl earrings.

Alicia Coutts, swimmer: favours using a McDonald's towel.

Steve Waugh, cricketer: kept a red hanky in his pocket.