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With only one or two games left in the World Series, there are many baseball fans out there right now who aren't changing their shirts, or who are wearing certain colors every day, or are maybe skipping that shave...in the hopes of bringing their favorite team to a win. I'm more than a little excited because my team is in the running. But can any of us really help our team win through our behaviors?
Superstitions are practices or beliefs that certain things have a causal effect -- that one event leads to another -- but these beliefs have little grounding in actual evidence. Even pigeons can pick up superstitions, as B.F. Skinner demonstrated by giving them food pellets at regular intervals. Whatever behavior the pigeons were performing at the time the food was dispensed (such as turning in a circle), the pigeons began performing that behavior more frequently. It's as if the birds thought those behaviors led to the presentation of the food pellets.
Superstition is prevalent in baseball, perhaps more than any other sport -- but why? Well, as it turns out, also more than other sports, baseball outcomes are largely due to luck or chance. What?!!? you might be thinking, no way! ...but here's the evidence. The best teams typically win around 60% of their games, and the worst teams win around 40%. A team would have to win less than 71 games or more than 91 games to be performing statistically different from chance (nine of 30 of the current MLB teams did so this year, and none of the four teams who won more than 91 games are in the WS this year). The team with the best record this year, the LA Angels, won 98 of 162 games (60.5%). And what are the Angels doing this week? Sitting at home, watching the World Series on TV.
Almost ten years ago, scientists decided to explore baseball superstitions, by going to the source...the players themselves. They asked 77 major league players (including players from the SF Giants, the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the aforementioned Angels) questions about their superstitious behaviors and beliefs. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost 75% of players had at least one superstition they practiced before games, and of those players, over half of them engaged in those behaviors before EVERY game.
What were they doing? The behaviors included everything from using a special toothbrush, wearing the same clothing, making certain marks in the dirt with the bat while in the batter's box, eating a certain food before every game, or re-tying shoes at certain points in the game. Or maybe talking to their bat like Pablo Sandoval here:
The "playoff beard" is now a thing, with many players getting scruffier and scruffier as the baseball season nears its end.
Do these behaviors help determine the outcome of the games? Probably not, but that's a hard research question to ask. The authors of the baseball superstition study did ask players how much they thought superstitions actually impacted their performance or the outcome of the game. Turns out not much. Most players thought their behaviors "sometimes" or "hardly ever" effected the results of the game.
So why do baseball players and fans perform these behaviors if even the baseball players don't think they work? Well, perhaps when baseball outcomes really are left to chance, if the superstitious behaviors don't negatively impact the results, just like those twirling pigeons, it doesn't hurt to try.
Here's to baseball! Go Giants!!!
Burger, J. M., & Lynn, A. L. (2005). Superstitious behavior among American and Japanese professional baseball players. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27(1), 71-76.
Read more about baseball superstitions: