Contagion or Superstition?

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Would you do perform better if you thought an expert had used the equipment beforehand?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute recruited a group of 41 golfers to putt on a short indoor artificial green.

Some of the golfers were told at random that the high-end putters they were given had been used by a PGA player. Before putting they were all asked to draw the size of the hole.

Those told that the putter had been used by the professional not only drew the hole 9% bigger but sank 32% more putts than the rest of the group.

The belief they were playing with a professionals putter seemingly gave them more confidence and so they performed better. Previous research had already shown that successful putters visualised the hole as bigger.

Sally Linkenauger and her colleagues saw this as evidence of positive contagion, the belief that people leave some essence of themselves on things they use – and the reason people who collect autographs value them so much.

And this unreasonable belief may allow people to offload pressure to perform onto an object that they believe has some positive impact on their performance. Sportsmen often have superstitious beliefs, for example, about the way they prepare their kit or the order in which they do things, or not washing their socks in the middle of a successful run in the belief it will break the spell if they do.

Experiments suggest that superstition works because it improves your confidence, which in turn improves your performance. Even “Bad Science” writer Ben Goldacre, the scourge of dodgy experimenters, admits that superstition works if you believe in it citing a number of experiments with “lucky golf balls” anagrams and other games , lucky charms and crossing your fingers.

The researchers also think there is a priming effect which is when exposure to a stimulus predisposes people to act in  certain way.

An example of this is when Asian-American women were given a maths test.With one group the researchers emphasised that they were women and with another group that they were Asian (to recall the stereotype the Asians are good at maths).

The group primed as women performed significantly worse than the Asian-primed group.

Can these ideas help you perform better at work? Well people often create their own work space, sometimes as an extension of their home, where they feel more relaxed. Of course they may enjoy more job satisfaction but doesn’t necessarily mean they are more productive. And I’ve not seen research comparing this with “hot-desking” which is the other extreme.

The trend towards “Bring Your Own Device” (BOYD) might also make people more comfortable with their tools and it ought to be more productive working on a familiar piece of equipment. On the other hand if you have lots of personal apps on it they might be a bit distracting.

Source: HBR July-August 2012


One thought on “Contagion or Superstition?

    Brett Wilder said:
    September 1, 2012 at 6:31 am

    Thank you for the outstanding posts!

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