Superstition may work if you think it works.   If only voodoo were so easy, we'd love to have an army of zombies at our command.

But people, and certainly athletes, maintain any number of superstitious rituals, so Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler of the University of Cologne designed a set of experiments to see if activating  people's superstitious beliefs would improve their performance on a task.  Their research says that having some kind of lucky token can actually improve performance – but by increasing self-confidence and not any magical mojo.

In one of the experiments, volunteers were told to bring a lucky charm with them. Then the researchers took it away to take a picture. People brought in all kinds of items, from old stuffed animals to wedding rings to lucky stones. Half of the volunteers were given their charm back before the test started; the other half were told there was a problem with the camera equipment and they would get it back later.

Volunteers who had their lucky charm did better at a memory game on the computer, and other tests showed that this difference was because they felt more confident. They also set higher goals for themselves. Just wishing someone good luck – with "I press the thumbs for you," the German version of crossing your fingers – improved volunteers' success at a task that required manual dexterity.

lucky charms superstition
Credit: Association for Psychological Science

What happens when your superstition clashes with someone else's?  Will Michael Jordan's college team shorts underneath his NBA uniform beat Tiger Woods' red shirt in a golf match?  Self-confidence boosts can only take you so far.

"It doesn't mean you win, because of course winning and losing is something else," says Damisch. "Maybe the other person is stronger."

The research will soon be published in Psychological Science.