The Situationist

Archive for February 5th, 2007

Think you’ve got magical powers?

Posted by Emily Pronin on February 5, 2007

Baseball, they say, is America’s game. But have you been to the ballpark recently? It seems we care about much more than just curve balls, bunts, stolen bases, and errors. More or less everyone playing or watching the sport is also focused on hexes, curses, jinxes, and any sort of outcome-altering magic.

In 2003, Curt Schilling, Boston’s pitching ace, helped the Red Sox win their first World Series (as if you hadn’t heard) in 86 years. But Beantown fans saw the win as much more than just a single World Series. To them, Schilling helped to overcome the “curse of the Bambino,” which had so long prevented the team from re-establishing its erstwhile preeminence.

curt-schilling.JPGWas it Schilling’s split-finger fastball that made the difference? Or, perhaps, was it one if his many rituals? On his journeys between dugout and mound, Schilling would leap over the foul line; before delivering his first pitch, he would pull a necklace from under his shirt and peck its pendant; and he never began his warmup routine for night games until exactly 6:45 p.m.

It’s not just the players who believe in magic. Fans, who never even touch the ball, appear to do all they can to influence a game through similarly superstitious practices. The sign most flashed by Red Sox fans that October, said simply “We Believe.” “Believe in what?” you might ask. It’s hard to say exactly, but the signs seemed to be a public profession of faith in magic, miracles, destiny, and an ability through collective will to reverse the curse.

The documentaries made about the curse-ending Series, treated the season as a miracle – a long-overdue reward for fans keeping the

Begins to make one wonder. What, really, is America’s pastime? Is it baseball? Or is it voodoo? Ok, it’s probably baseball. But at least one fan I know of combined the two: She made a voodoo doll of the opposing team’s coach and stuck pins in it before a critical tournament match-up. She still speaks with pride about the fact that her team won that night. Although few of us are sticking pins into dolls, there is growing evidence that our faith in things magical and our efforts to create magic are far more common and central to our daily lives than most of us would acknowledge.

Experiments that I’ve been conducting with Daniel Wegner, Sylvia Rodriguez, and Kimberly McCarthy have shown that people sometimes claim magical powers—personal responsibility for events they couldn’t possibly have controlled.

While most people would report believing that thoughts alone cannot cause external events, in these experiments people claimed responsibility for events that they had only willed to occur. For example, one experiment gauged whether people thought they had harmed another person when they stuck pins in a voodoo doll named after that person. Subjects in the experiment believed in the power of their voodoo hexes, but only if they had first generated evil thoughts about their victim.

Doll Used in ExperimentFor the voodoo experiment, subjects were led to think evil thoughts about another person who they believed was also a subject in the experiment (but who actually worked for the researchers). In a control condition, they were not led to think such thoughts. Each subject then stuck pins in a voodoo doll representing the alleged victim, who was seated at the table across from them. When the “victim” then faked having a headache, those who had harbored evil thoughts were more likely than their peers in a control condition to believe they had caused it.

In addition to experiments with voodoo hexes, we’ve also studied fans watching sports. In one study, subjects watched as a player shot baskets. Spectators were more likely to perceive that they had caused his success if they had first been asked to visualize his success (“Imagine the ball falling through the hoop”).

In another experiment conducted at a live basketball game (Princeton vs. Harvard), princeton-hoops.JPGsome spectators were given a task before the start of the game to think about how each of the starting players could contribute to it. Other audience members were not given this assignment (they instead were led to think about the players’ appearances). At halftime, those who had thought about the players’ potential contributions to the game reported having had more of an impact on the game than those in the control condition. In another study, people watching the NFL Super Bowl on television felt more responsible for that game’s outcome the more they thought about the game while watching it. Never mind that all of them had watched the game in front of a television at the campus student center.

Why would that be? Maybe the better question is, why not? Although the perception of mental power is (probably) without rational basis, the illusion of magic is comforting and, perhaps, adaptive. Belief in magic gives us hope, causal explanations, and the illusion of control – all of which we tend to crave – at times when any of those things might be hard to come by. Fears can be assuaged, threats can be tamed, stress can be eased, physical constraints can be transcended, and smoldering embers of hope can be rekindled when magic is possible.

Perhaps that partially explains why, assuming the folk wisdom is correct, individuals seem most likely to seek out magic in situations where they feel they have the least control over outcomes and where they face particularly salient threats. Research conducted in the labs of Daniel Gilbert (at Harvard) and Giora Keinan (at Tel Aviv University) suggest that it is at death’s door, or in times of extreme stress and danger, when many atheists find religion.


And, as reported in a recent CNN story, soldiers on the field of battle cling tightly to good luck charms. The video report from Iraq provides compelling and touching evidence of the powerful need we all may have – soldier, journalist, and viewer alike – to believe in magic.

Although our research focuses on the role of magic in our causal attributions, our findings may have implications for explaining many attributions of causation, responsibility, and blame, even when magic is not involved. They may help explain, for example, why “intent” is so often critical in law when rights and penalties are assessed. Perhaps that is one reason why a defendant’s thoughts prior to killing someone determine whether the killing was a murder in the first degree or something less. Take the same actions and add malicious premeditation, and the actor is considered far more blameworthy – that was true in our studies, and it’s true in the law. Maybe there is a connection.

Our article, titled “Everyday Magical Powers: The Role of Apparent Mental Causation in the Overestimation of Personal Influence,” appears in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (For a recent New York Times article summarizing that research and other interesting work on the sources and ubiquity of magical thinking, click here .)

Posted in Life, Situationist Sports, Social Psychology | 15 Comments »

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