October 30, 2008

Calling Stevie Wonder: ‘Very Superstitious’

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Wearing a blue sweatshirt, you trudge your way up to campus for a prelim, stopping at CTB for a medium coffee. You add an inch of skim milk and a packet of natural sugar —nah, make that two. You finish the trek up to the test you’re going to bomb, give it your best not-good-enough shot and feel inadequate all the way back home.
A week later, you’re nervously peeking through two fingers at the tiny numbers scribbled on the front page and it hits you: shock, delight and triple check that you are in fact holding your exam. An A!
Inevitably, you start to think: what the heck did I do before this prelim? I should do that again. And even though you realize how silly it is that a month later you’re wearing the same blue sweatshirt and stopping at CTB for the same size, roast and fixed-up coffee for prelim number two, why take any chances? You don’t want to gamble with luck.
Thus, a superstition is born.
I’ve spent half my life abiding by my own superstitions and laughing at other people’s. I carried a Tupperware container of whole wheat noodles to prom because I had a race the next day and that was my night-before food. Let me tell you, it made quite the lovely accessory.
Bringing noodles to prom is a weak manifestation of superstition, however, compared to some athletes I’ve known. One of my friends had a specific lucky article of clothing for every body part on which clothing is conceivably worn. If she wanted to break ten minutes in her race, she had to go to bed before 10 p.m. the night before. Compared to my one night of whole wheat pasta, her pre-race foods were exactly the same and eaten at exactly the same time for every single three-day period preceding a race. On race day, the same nine songs had to blast out of her ipod. Crazy.
Athletic superstitions can be as famous as the athletes themselves. Michael Phelps has to flap his monkey arms three times before every race and Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform for every game. Baseball is a sport well-known for its extreme superstitions. I read about one player who had to touch someone back that touched him. If he was tagged out, he would chase the infielder after the inning and touch him. Friends aware of the superstition would touch him and run away, leaving the player to stay up all night or wander around for hours, desperately seeking a touch-back.
Why are these seemingly irrational behaviors so common? Well, at one point, we all had athletic success after doing these particular things. Then we attributed our success to the things that we did before the successful event — something that we are biologically programmed to do. Superstitions are simply the residue of a once meaningful survival mechanism.
Fortunately, somewhere along the course of human evolution, we learned to repeat the things that kept us alive. Choosing to run rather than stand in place in the face of a charging tiger enabled our smarter ancestors to encounter charging tigers again. Presented with the threat a second time, the superior caveman could remember the first escape and attribute his success to the decision to run.
As our brains developed, so did the ability to further analyze the causes of success. The caveman started to wonder if he was alive just because he had decided to run or because the whole wheat pasta he had eaten allowed him to run so fast.
As civilizations advanced, the definitions of success and failure changed. Success attributions evolved from “I must have escaped that tiger because I ran for my life” to “The crops must have grown this year because we sacrificed cows to the rain gods” to “I must have gotten an A on that prelim because I wore my lucky blue sweatshirt and drank a medium coffee with skim milk and two natural sugars from CTB.”
Of course, when sports were invented and grew to dominate the better half of our lives since we no longer had to escape from tigers, winning a game became the equivalent success. Semi-reasonable things like the training or the foods that preceded the game get remembered clearly for future repeating should the game be won. Less reasonable things like the particular pair of socks worn or the particular nine songs that were heard are also remembered.
It seems, based on experience, that the only way to change a superstition is by repeatedly failing with that ritual. I say change, because new superstitions are always born when old ones die. The whole wheat pasta suddenly “doesn’t work” anymore and the nine songs are no longer lucky, but maybe wearing ribbons around the ponytail helped.
But while they can be harmless and mildly entertaining, sometimes superstitions are dangerous. They can get in the way of just plain having confidence in your abilities. You got an A on that prelim because you’re smart! After all, the caveman probably never thought that he escaped the tiger because of the particular shade of loincloth he wore at the time.