Uncommon Knowledge

Superstition works, kind of

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
July 4, 2010

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In our modern, enlightened society, most people claim not to be superstitious. Yet in high-stakes situations, many of those same people adopt superstitious beliefs such as lucky clothes, numbers, or places. Is this just a sign of emotional weakness? Is it metaphysical uncertainty? It turns out that such beliefs may help. In a putting game with a golf ball, people sank significantly more putts after they had been told that their ball was the lucky one. The effect also held up in intellectual challenges; for example, people performed better on a memory game when they had a lucky charm with them, compared to when they didn’t. In general, superstitions gave people a greater sense of self-efficacy.

Damisch, L. et al., “Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Hanukkah as competitive sport
If you’re a Jewish American, Hanukkah probably means a lot to you. This is, however, surprising to Jews from Israel, for whom Hanukkah is not a big holiday. Three Jewish economists examined the idea that this may have something to do with Christmas. Analyzing data from a national survey, they found that Jews with young children were more likely to celebrate Hanukkah than other Jewish holidays. The authors then analyzed data on local retail purchases of Jewish products. Stores in areas with a lower share of Jews sold more Jewish products around Hanukkah. This seems to suggest that Jewish families feel they have to compete for the loyalty of their children, especially when everyone else is celebrating Christmas.

Abramitzky, R. et al., “Is Hanukkah Responsive to Christmas?” Economic Journal (June 2010).

Ladies last
Have you ever ordered a drink at Starbucks, only to wait for what seemed like forever? If you’re a woman, now you have a case to make. Researchers from Middlebury College visited eight coffee shops in Boston, where they observed the time it took for a random sample of customers to receive their orders. On average, women waited about 20 seconds (24 percent) longer than men, even for the same kind of order. The difference in wait times was smaller in stores with more female employees and almost twice as long in stores with no female employees. According to the authors, some form of discrimination is probably taking place, perhaps including “benevolent” behavior like flirting.

Myers, C. et al., “Ladies First? A Field Study of Discrimination in Coffee Shops,” Applied Economics (May 2010).

The risky sibling
If you’re a younger sibling, you’ve probably felt pressure at one time or another to distinguish yourself in the family. And maybe you’ve wondered if this experience has changed you. According to a review of 24 previous studies, you’re probably more willing to take risks. Later-born siblings were more likely to engage in dangerous sports, like football or skydiving. Researchers also analyzed data on 700 brothers who played major league baseball and found that younger brothers were much more likely to try to steal bases and were more likely to succeed. Younger brothers were also more likely to be hit by pitches (indicative of a more aggressive batter) and notched better batting statistics. The differences were especially pronounced when the brothers were closer in age, suggesting that sibling rivalry generates extra motivation for younger brothers to stand out.

Sulloway, F. & Zweigenhaft, R., “Birth Order and Risk Taking in Athletics: A Meta-Analysis and Study of Major League Baseball,” Personality and Social Psychology Review (forthcoming).

More money, less happy
One of the big puzzles in economic psychology is why people don’t seem to get happier beyond a certain point of affluence. Unsatisfying jobs or nagging envy can obviously play a role, but researchers think they’ve found another key mechanism linking money to happiness. People with more money find it harder to savor positive experiences. The power of money to dampen enjoyment doesn’t just apply to the wealthy — in an experiment, people shown a picture of a large stack of cash then consumed a piece of chocolate more quickly and appeared to enjoy it less than people who hadn’t seen the money.

Quoidbach, J. et al., “Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away: The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness,” Psychological Science (June 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at