Why are sports fans so superstitious?

For several years I would choose what to wear on the day of a sporting event based on what I had worn in my team’s previous game and the result of that contest. I’ve turned games off in the hope that my team will play better, and turned games on while a small voice in my head told me that something bad would happen imminently. I’ve had a lucky scarf and a lucky sweatshirt for Cornell hockey, and a rotation of “lucky” Arsenal shirts.

Why do I bother? And why do so many other sports fans insist that their superstitions work? If you aren’t on the field of play, your actions can’t have any significant impact on the game. If you aren’t even in the stadium, you can’t affect the outcome at all.

We do it, I’d suggest, for two reasons. The first is that we easily confuse correlation and causation. If I put on a blue shirt for the first time in a few weeks and pick up a $100 bill on the street, I may think that the coincidence of sartorial choice in some way caused the good fortune to find someone’s lost money. If I wear a red and white striped scarf for three Arsenal matchdays in a row and Arsenal wins all of those games, I’ll go through the same pseudo-logical process.

Obviously, these events are not related, but if they coincide a few times it may feel like they are — and that belief is the essence of superstition.

The second reason is that sports fans care far too much about their (our) teams. We want superstition to be real because we want to have some control over a series of events outside our control. We want to be able to make the winning touchdown catch, set up a goal with a perfectly placed through ball, or save a game with a spectacular glove save. But we can’t. Our relative lack of sporting ability means that we are in the stands or on the couch. At the same time, we care deeply about the flow and result of the game, and we wish that we could do something about it, so we convince ourselves that we can. If I wear the right clothes, watch from the right side of the couch, and eat the right lunch, then my team will win. Even when we acknowledge the absurdity of the idea, we want it to be true, so we follow the routine.

Despite all logic and evidence to the contrary, fans will keep wearing The Right Socks, staking out The Right Chair, or eating The Right Meal. We do it because we have to believe, and believing makes it real.


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