Lucky Socks, Numbers, Charms: Superstition in Sports

Oct 31, 2019

From only eating specific meals on game day to booger hexes to lighting incense in front of a backyard Buddhist statue - sports fans are no strangers to superstitious behavior. Murray State professor of psychology, Dan Wann, Ph.D., and Tracy Ross continue their sports psychology series with a discussion on sport superstition. 

"[Superstition] is a large part of every kind of fandom. It's a large part of all aspects of life," Wann says. "And certainly, sports fans have not been left behind in their desire to figure out ways to impact the outcome of a sporting event through their superstitious actions and thoughts and emotional responses." 

"I've done an awful lot of research on fans. We've covered in my lab pretty much every aspect you could come up with. From the things they do to the things they think to the things they feel. I've never done a study I've enjoyed more, that I had more fun with than a study on sports fan superstitions that myself and about five or six other colleagues in different universities collaborated on. It took us six years to code the data because we couldn't get through anybody without spending 15 minutes laughing and talking about it. It was an absolute laugh riot. We never dreamed about the creativity that sports fans could have and the things that they would do to try and influence an outcome of an event of which they have no impact on whatsoever," Wann says. 

"Things such as the UK basketball fan who, after the first half and before the second half starts, would have to go out to his garden and light incense in front of his Buddha statue," Wann continues. "There was the individual who...when watching his favorite basketball team on TV, the Louisville Cardinals, he'd have to place his hand over the eyes of the free-throw shooter for the opposing team to disrupt and jinx this person...on the TV, he'd have to place his hand to disrupt the person's focus. The person that every time his team had a runner on third base, he'd take his lucky pack of baseball cards and rub the cat's belly." 

"The lady who said her superstition was each Friday night before her favorite college football team had a game, she had to make love to her husband wearing her favorite team's jersey and appropriately colored socks. I used to giggle thinking that nobody looks forward to the college football season quite as much as her husband," Wann laughs. "Probably my all-time favorite...was one person, a Notre Dame football fan, who said that before each quarter, he had three verses of the Bible that he had to read from. There was a Notre Dame football fan who said before each quart, he had to drink three beers. What I love was it was the same fan. So somewhere in the Notre Dame stadium, there's somebody with a beer in one hand and a Bible in the other. Who says sport's not religion?"

Even Wann has his own sport superstitions, including a practice that might be considered a touch too nosy for some and just the right amount of supernaturally powerful for others. "I have the booger hex. I don't even really remember where it began, I think it goes back to my days at Baker University in the fraternity. But somehow, I came up with this notion - not on my own, but I was told by somebody else a long time ago - that if you put your finger in your nose and you pretend to flick a booger at someone, you can hex them. That sounds one part strange and one part disgusting. So I got to Murray State and we had a bunch of different families that all bought bleacher tickets together. So I would sit there, and it would be a crucial moment of the game, the opposing team's player would step to the free-throw line. You'd hear 15 to 20 people screaming at the top of their lungs, 'booger hex him, Dan! Booger hex him, Dan!' Of course, you know, I would do it, and I'll be darned if they didn't just miss just enough to make you go, well, maybe that's just the magical booger," Wann laughs. 

Whether it be lucky clothes, a lucky vocalization, lucky seats, or lucky charms, these widely unique superstitions can be closely linked to highly identified fans' own senses of self. "We asked [sports fans], 'to what extent do you think these [superstitions] have an impact on the outcome?' One was very little, up to eight, a whole lot, and the average was right around five and a half. They absolutely were convinced that what they did mattered. When we asked them, 'why do you do this?' The most common response was because 'if I don't, they'll lose, and it will be my fault.' They literally were going to feel guilty if they didn't do it. That's the extent of what's going on in the sports fan's minds. These highly identified fans, what's happening on the court, happening on the field, happening on the pitch, matters so much to them," Wann explains. 

"From the psychological perspective, essentially what you're talking about is Thorndike Law of Effect, which simply says that...any behavior that you do that's followed by a positive consequence has an increased likelihood of being repeated. They key there is followed by, not behavior. But in our mind, we have this causal illusion. We think that if something happens and then something else happens, there must be this temporal pattern. So A causes B."

"Part of their identity is wrapped up in this team's success," Wann continues. "They can't do anything about it, right? They can scream and they can holler and they can try to encourage and they can clap and they can boo. But the reality is, they're 99% helpless. But yet, they know at the end of the day, the team wins, great mood. The team loses, bad mood. So there's a lot of that's going on. We don't like things that are random. We like to be in control. We like to have this sense of, 'I'm going to impact my life and take ownership and responsibility.' That's when superstitions pop up because they are basically just our desire to gain control in an otherwise uncontrollable environment. That really kind of describes a highly identified fan. They're looking for control in a scenario that matters to them that they really can't do much about."