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Monday, February 05, 2007
Can You Change the Outcome of Games By Wishing and Believing?

Emily Pronin, a professor of social psychology at Princeton University who has conducted some fascinating research on sports fans, has a thought-provoking post up on The Situationist entitled "Think You've Got Magical Powers?" The post details her research on how many athletes and sports fans believe that they can influence the outcomes of games through ritual, thoughts, and other activities that have no apparent rational connection to the games. Here is an excerpt from her post:
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), some 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.
For more, check out Emily's post on The Situationist. You can also read an article she co-authored entitled,“Everyday Magical Powers: The Role of Apparent Mental Causation in the Overestimation of Personal Influence,” which appears in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Update: Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post has an excellent story in Monday's Post on Emily and the studies she has co-authored, and Henry Abbott over at True Hoop has a thoughtful post on those studies.


I believe in the power of the individual fan! My team loses if I celebrate to early, or if I don't properly perform pregame rituals. I've known these powers to be true ever since I was a child and the Phillies never lost when me, my Dad and brother attended.

Now, even if we don't have mystical powers, my efforts are otherwise grounded in fairness. It is not fair for me to yell and curse those who perform for my entertainment, unless I too have given my all!

Blogger SmittyBanton -- 2/07/2007 11:36 AM  

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