Updated: Mar 21, 2021
It’s finals time. You’re sitting at your desk in the examination hall nervously clutching your pencil case. You can hear your teacher’s heels loudly echoing throughout the hall. One by one you take out your ruler, calculator and pe-, wait a minute. You forgot your lucky pen, the pen that keeps the exam nerves at bay. You lean back in your chair and prepare to fail.
A lucky pen, ‘touch wood’ and crossing your fingers for good luck are a few of the superstitious behaviours many of us take part in. Much of these originate from pagan religious beliefs which have been passed down generations as a way of “preventing” bad luck.
Magical thinking is a psychological thought process that blurs the line between reality and imagination. It is a distorted cognitive process that defies the laws of logic  by using irrational and peculiar beliefs  to prevent misfortune. In times of great stress, people often exercise superstitious behaviour to attain a sense of relief and control.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist, believed that magical thinking develops in children around the ages of three to four as they fail to find logical and rational reasons to explain interactions between things they observe . For instance, if a child sees a balloon pop after a dog barking, they may assume that the barking caused the balloon to pop. When four-, six- and eight-year olds were asked to explain why two magnets of the same polarity repelled when they were placed within close proximity, younger children tended to use magical explanations, while older children used fewer magical explanations and more physical explanations . Children begin to understand natural laws, namely cause and effect, by the time they are eight, and become less reliant on magical thinking to explain phenomena they see in the world around them .
However, Sigmund Freud, everyone's favourite psychologist, and Piaget hypothesised that adults could revert to magical thinking in situations that elicit fear and anxiety [4,5], often using it as a coping mechanism and sometimes even as a performance enhancer.
A Coping Mechanism
Let’s face it - most of us have a “lucky” pen. A pen that we wholeheartedly believe will bring us that much closer to our desired mark. In a 2018 study investigating the effect of magical thinking on stress levels, participants were randomly assigned into four groups: no-stress with no lucky pen, no-stress with a lucky pen, stress with no lucky pen and stress with a lucky pen . The no stress groups had to take part in an informal discussion and complete a set of simple mathematical questions. In contrast, the stress groups were instructed to complete a socially evaluated interview and mental arithmetic test. All participants were then asked to prepare for a stressful interview – one half was given a pen said to have been lucky for previous participants, and the others were given the same pen and told to prepare.
Researchers found that superstitious behaviour increased more in those exposed to stressful conditions . As it turned out, having a lucky pen proved to be quite beneficial and participants who used the lucky pen also self-evaluated their overall performance higher. So, stocking up on your favourite pen might be quite a worthwhile investment!
As suggested by Freud and Piaget, magical thinking has been shown to be a mechanism that allows individuals to forge control over stressful events . A ground-breaking study in this area examined the prevalence of magical thinking in Israeli citizens during the Gulf War. Researchers found links between magical thinking and an individual’s level of stress and their tolerance of ambiguity, which refers to one’s degree of comfort with unpredictability . As depicted in Figure 1, the study found that participants with higher stress levels and a lower tolerance of ambiguity were more vulnerable to magical thinking.
Figure 1: The relationship between levels of stress and tolerance of ambiguity. Higher levels of magical thinking can be observed in individuals with high stress and low tolerance of ambiguity. 
Magical thinking can help individuals feel in control through 2 main ways – it can make life predictable by providing explanations for occurrences we lack knowledge of or it can allow us to create our own reasons for the occurrence of stressful times through using superstitious beliefs . For example, a person living in a high stress environment may wear the same coloured shirt every day under the presumption that it will negate misfortune or bad luck.
Though it doesn’t feature on any anti-doping lists, magical thinking also has the ability to enhance one’s performance. Participants were asked to complete a series of tasks assessing two major domains – performance goals and learning goals . Performance goals, as its name suggests, are tasks where participants aimed to demonstrate their competence at a certain task, whilst learning goals focused on skill-based development instead. Hamerman and Morewedge asked participants if they wished to view a good luck charm before starting their tasks, in order to explore the link between these different goal types and the likelihood of participants resorting to superstitious behaviour .
Figure 2: A lucky avatar is more likely to be picked when participants are carrying out performance goals rather than learning goals. 
They found that participants were more likely to look at a good luck charm when pursuing performance goals, as shown in Figure 2, and that it also helped their confidence levels . Echoing the findings of the earlier study in the Gulf War , participants seemed to rely on superstitious behaviour especially when faced with uncertainty in achieving goals. Interestingly, researchers found that the relative reluctance of participants to engage in superstition when pursuing learning goals might be due to a difference in personality – facing and overcoming obstacles are a key part of the process of learning .
We don’t have to look far to see examples of magical thinking being used to improve performance in the real world – professional athletes are notoriously superstitious. Michael Jordan is known to have worn his North Carolina shorts under his NBA uniform during his entire career with the belief it would better his performance .
Figure 3: MJ’s lucky shorts! Image credit: Lipofsky cited in 
So, next time you find yourself being superstitious, try using it to your advantage. It may provide a sense of relief and possibly even enhance your performance! Although, like with everything in life, it’s best not to get too carried away…
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Cover image courtesy of pxhere [Internet]. 2017 [cited 14 November 2020]. Available from: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/548342