Charming Your Way to Good Fortune

How lucky charms improve your chances through performance boosts.

Four leaf clovers are one of the most well-known symbols for good luck. Image Credit: JD Hancock

What is luck?

When you contemplate this question, you might come up with a broad concept of the idea, but what about a more exact definition? Luck is a commonly used word that’s passed around often, whether wishing a friend “good luck” on their way to a test or crossing our fingers for some upcoming situation. Yet, for such a frequently used word, it’s shockingly hard to define. The exact definitions of luck swirl around each other on different dictionaries. Luck is described as being a case of good fortune, but the definition of fortune is “prosperity attained partly through luck” (“Fortune”).

The reason it may be so hard to conjure an exact definition for luck is because it is a very abstract idea, and it’s quite difficult to properly grasp the concept of something so impalpable. Therefore, in order to bridge the gap between abstract and reality, people like to make the intangible tangible by imbuing objects with the concept of luck.

The idea of lucky charms has been around since the beginning of recorded history, and most likely long before that as well. Before its connotation was negatively tainted by Hitler in World War II, the swastika was seen as a symbol of good fortune in ancient Eurasia as early as 7,000 years ago (“The History of the Swastika”). In medieval times, a hangman’s noose was believed to endow good luck. It was a popular item to buy, especially for gamblers and cardsharps who would purchase pieces of a dead man’s noose in an attempt to gain favor with Lady Luck.

But the idea of luck isn’t just an ancient one, as many people today carry or use lucky charms as a way to improve their daily lives or give them the extra boost they might need in a given moment. According to a survey done in 1996, 25% of Americans considered themselves to be superstitious, and according to the pattern of the data, those numbers have most likely increased as time continued on into modern day (Oksman). You or someone you know probably has a lucky charm, even if you don’t associate it with the exact label. Is there an article of clothing or jewelry that you wear to every important event? Does someone you know have a lucky number? Even people who don’t consider themselves to be superstitious still have items or symbols they associate with bearing luck. Christine L. is a family friend who most would not describe as being superstitious. Despite her lack of superstition, on a bad day or one in which she feels like she needs an extra boost, she dons a necklace. She won’t put on just any old necklace, though; no, Christine uses a particular piece of jewelry with a special meaning to her. It was a piece that she had made after her father passed away, which now holds a significant place in her heart. Round and silver, it has three separate layers that each represent a different piece of her father: his name, the dates of his birth and death, and finally a quote that fully embodies who her father was. While wearing this necklace, Christine swears that she feels almost as if she possesses “superpowers.” With her necklace on, she claims that she feels more confident and able to accomplish anything.

The ten-time Grammy winner and world renowned pop-star, Taylor Swift, is famously known for having a lucky number: 13. She is noted for incorporating the number in almost everything she does, whether it be a 13 second intro into a song, hiding the number on a necklace in a music video, or painting it on the back of her hand during a concert. So why does Swift insist on including the number in everything? She asserts that the number brings her luck. Not only was the singer born on the 13th of December, but it has also had a significant presence throughout her career in the music industry. Her first album took 13 weeks to go gold, 3 of her songs have peaked at number 13 on the Hot Billboard 100, and every time she has won an award, she has been seated in the 13th seat, row or section (Stubblebine). When she sees the number 13 during her day, Taylor swears she has a luckier or improved day; however if she fails to come across the number her day will be average or below. She has been very open about her trust in the number and her belief about the luck it brings, “Basically whenever a 13 comes up in my life, it’s a good thing (Sisavat).”

Swift draws 13 on her hand on every 13th concert of her tours for “luck.” Image Credit: Eva Rinaldi

So what is it with these lucky charms that make them so popular throughout the history of humankind? Some hypothesize it’s simply because they give the illusion that we, as people, possess a degree of control over our lives, which we in reality do not (Bialik). Others simply chalk it up to the fact that people tend to put their belief in phenomena even if it lacks empirical support (Kostovičová). But is there any way that these lucky charms could actually work and grant people that intangible, but much sought after luck? Well, as it turns out, lucky charms can actually help and improve people’s lives and prospects, just not in the manner that you might expect.

How do charms work?

Researchers decided to test the idea of lucky charms in an experiment conducted at the University of Cologne. In the experiment, a group of volunteers were polled, revealing that 80% of them already believed in good luck (Damisch 1015). The volunteers were then instructed to putt golf balls into a hole about 4 feet away — not an impossible task, but also not a guaranteed hole in one. In order to activate their superstition, half of the volunteers were told before attempting their putt that their ball was “lucky.” The other half were simply given a ball without any comment on luck. Those who were told their ball was lucky were able to sink 6.4 out of the 10 putts, almost two more successful putts on average than the volunteers who received the regular ball, a 35% improvement (“How Lucky Charms Really Work”).

Researchers had participants putt golf balls into a hole while testing to see if belief in luck had any effect on performance. Photo Credit: PR4God on https://www.shutterstock.com/

In another experiment conducted at the University of Cologne by Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler, 41 university students, who previously had a lucky charm that they believed in, were appointed the presence or absence of their charm. If allowed a charm, the participants were then asked to bring in their personal item (Damisch 1016). Next, the students judged their levels of anxiety and self-efficacy, or their belief in their ability to implement behaviors necessary to yield the particular performance attainments. They then completed a memory task which involved 36 cards placed face down on a table. Each card depicted geometric figures that only had one other identical figure in the same shape and color illustrated on another card. The participants were then instructed to find the 18 matching pairs by only turning two cards at a time up. Those who brought their lucky charm with them performed better than those without any extra “luck.” They also demonstrated and stated higher levels of self-efficacy, but the same levels of anxiety as the regular participants. This shows that both those with and without the lucky charm were the same level of nervousness before taking the test, but the heightened belief in their abilities encouraged by the presence of the lucky charm enabled those with their charm to perform better than those without.

These experiments’ results indicate that perhaps we’ve all been viewing lucky charms the wrong way. Perhaps they don’t actually give some invisible, divine luck, but instead the activation of our superstition can generate effects that improve our performances in the task at hand. A key component in our doing well is our self-efficacy, and since our various charms can help to improve that, they are also linked to improved performances and therefore outcomes.

Many famous athletes have been known to have a lucky charm. The world renowned tennis player and winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, Serena Williams, admitted that she has worn the same pair of socks to every match that she has ever won (Murphy). Michael Jordan, arguably the best basketball player to have ever played in the NBA, wore his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his uniform for the Chicago Bulls for every game in order to bring him and his team good luck. He led the team to 6 NBA championships over the duration of his career (Lebowitz). Perhaps most strangely of all, Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees wore a special golden thong whenever he had slumps in order to break out of them. Not only that, but he also would share his special underwear with teammates to help pull them out of their slumps as well. Many people on the New York Yankees have admitted to having worn the thong at some time or another. Even the captain of the team at the time, Derek Jeter confessed to having borrowed the golden floss, saying “it works every time.” Jeter went 0 for 32, but hit a home run on the first pitch during the game he wore the special gold thong (Hokanson).

Yankees player, Jason Giambi, wore a special golden thong to break out of slumps. Photo Credit: mlb.com

Based on the results of the research conducted at the University of Cologne, the usage of these lucky charms may have, in fact, improved their performances through improving their self-efficacy. By activating their good luck superstition, the athletes may have improved their performances by boosting their beliefs in their ability to master the task at hand. By this theory, it was not truly “luck” that led to any of these athletes’ wins, but their improved confidence in themselves and their abilities due to using the lucky charms.

Do lucky charms work for everyone?

Now we have seen evidence that suggests that luck-related superstition is linked to improved performance on both motor dexterity and cognitive tasks. Yet, research conducted by Lenka Kostovičová implies that good luck beliefs are only helpful to a certain extent and are more likely to help some more than others. Her research shows that these beliefs might aid low scorers in feeling less anxious and feeling more confidence which therefore improves their performance, but they have also shown that perhaps the beliefs may hinder high scorers more than help them.

Kostovičová split her participants into two separate groups, both with the same cognitive load, and recorded their belief in their capabilities. Each group had 50 participants who were randomly allocated to one out of two conditions. The control group had no addition of a luck-related item, while the experimental group was given a luck-related item. This was a symbol placed at the top of their paper, which they were told was believed to bring luck, happiness and success. The participants were then asked to solve 8 word problems with varying difficulties that focused on thinking and reasoning, and 2 cognitive reflection problems.

Correct answers in Kostovičová’s experiment show that the experimental group with the lucky charms outperformed the control group the majority of the time.

Among participants who perceived themselves as competent prior to the experiment, those with the luck symbol showed a performance drop compared with the control group. This could be due to underestimating the difficulty of the task they were given as well as a decrease in their motivation and effort. In contrast, those who showed lower self-efficacy before the experiment performed better with the lucky symbol than the ones who had no symbol or belief of possessing extra luck (Kostovičová).

This evidence suggests that perhaps those who perceive themselves as competent with the lucky charm will slack off and therefore not put as much effort into the test as they would without the extra assurance a lucky charm brings. Yet, this is the opposite for those who have low belief in themselves, as they performed worse without the lucky charm. One interpretation is that those with low belief in their competence gain a mental boost from the charm and therefore are able to gain more confidence in themselves and perform better through being able to put more effort into the test.

So does this mean that only low scorers or those with low self-efficacy can garner the benefits of lucky charms? Well, not necessarily.

A good friend of mine, Saloni R., is a fellow college freshman. Everyone who knows her would describe Saloni as a genius, a straight A student who is consistently in the top 5% of her class. Yet, she too uses lucky charms in her daily life. Dangling off her bag are three Japanese charms she picked up from various Japanese temples while on vacation one summer. One stands for academic success, another for relationship success and the third is simply for good luck. Before obtaining these charms, Saloni already proved herself to be a high achiever, so do these charms hinder her more than they help? The answer to that question would be no — Saloni’s success in academics as well as her personal life remains steady even after obtaining these charms. The difference is that she doesn’t solely rely on the charms to achieve her success. Instead, she sees the charms more as comforting symbols, reminding her to try and do her best in life, despite the fact that most things are out of her control. This example shows how lucky charms can still be useful for anyone, but may require balancing other factors to be truly effective.

Evidence shows that lucky charms do work, but the magic of them doesn’t come from some divine and mysterious phenomena; instead it may come from a mental trick in boosting a person’s self-efficacy. While these charms can be useful, they have also shown themselves to be detrimental. Therefore, if you wish to garner the benefits of a lucky charm you need to be careful with the amount of reliance you place on the item. The item itself bears no special powers; instead the special aspect of the item comes from its effect on you, and how you see yourself and your abilities. Lucky charms apparently don’t give their bearer the ability to slack off and still do well, but do work when they encourage the bearer to try to do better. This doesn’t mean you should avoid using your lucky charms if you have them — lucky charms have the capability to be useful and can make a tangible difference. And everyone could use a bit of good luck now and then, even if they don’t realize that it’s not, in fact, originating from some powerful and benevolent outside force, but from added confidence in their own special capabilities.

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Undergraduate student at University of Delaware.

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