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Superstitious learning: Can 'lucky' rituals bring success?

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We love to mimic the routines and rituals of the rich and famous – but they may be no more insightful than random behaviours.
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Where would the self-help and business media be without the secret habits of highly successful people? Almost every week there’s a new article outlining a high-flying individual’s behaviours – with the implied promise that using the same techniques could deliver us fame and fortune, too. 

Some of their advice is relatively common sense: you’ll often hear how top CEOs like Elon Musk begin work early, skip breakfast and divide their time into small, manageable tasks. Arianna Huffington, the CEO of Thrive Global, prioritises sleep in the name of productivity, including a bedtime ritual in which she turns off all mobile devices and “escorts them out of [her] bedroom”.   

Other inspirational figures are more idiosyncratic in their habits. Bill Gates, for example, would reportedly rock backwards and forwards in his chair while brainstorming – a bodily means of focusing the mind that apparently spread across the Microsoft boardroom. Gates was also very particular in his choice of notebook: it had to be a yellow legal pad. Further back in history, Charles Dickens carried around a compass so he could sleep facing north, something he believed would contribute to more productive writing, while Beethoven counted exactly 60 coffee beans for each cup, which he used to power his composing. 

Why do successful people follow such eccentrically specific habits? And why are we so keen to read about them and mimic them in our own lives?

The answer lies in a powerful psychological process called ‘superstitious learning’. The brain is constantly looking for associations between two events. While it is mostly correct, it sometimes mistakes coincidence for causality – leading us to attribute success to something as arbitrary as the colour of our notebook or the number of beans in our brew, rather than our own talent or hard work. And when we hear of other’s triumphs, we often end up copying their habits, too, including the arbitrary rituals that they had acquired through superstitious learning – a phenomenon known as ‘over-imitation’. 

This is not to say the resulting habits are completely devoid of benefits. By giving us a sense of self-determination, the adoption of rituals – including the completely random behaviours that we have learnt ourselves or borrowed from those we admire – can help us to overcome anxiety, and may even bring about a noticeable boost in performance.

From the placement of objects to over-reliance on particular possessions or behaviours, people's special rituals can be diverse (Credit: Getty)

From the placement of objects to over-reliance on particular possessions or behaviours, people's special rituals can be diverse (Credit: Getty)

Pigeon performance 

The scientific study of superstitious learning began in the late 1940s, with an influential paper by the American psychologist BF Skinner

Skinner was interested in the learning process of conditioning: how we teach animals to perform tricks. If you want to teach a dog to sit, for example, you give it a small treat whenever it lowers its hind legs. Soon, the dog learns to link the reward with the behaviour, and will sit on command. 

Skinner wondered whether animals might also come to associate random behaviours with rewards. If an animal, for example, was moving in a particular way when food was offered, might it then assume the food was a reward for the move? If so, might it repeat that same move over and over again in case it brought further success? 

To find out, Skinner took a group of hungry pigeons and attached a device that would feed them at regular intervals to their cage. Sure enough, the pigeons soon began to perform idiosyncratic behaviours when they felt hungry again. “One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise around the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements,” he wrote. “Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage.” 

You might wonder how long the bird would continue with this behaviour without becoming disillusioned. But the simple rules of probability meant that the food would often come again while the bird was repeating its ritual, which reinforced the illusion that its behaviour was somehow influential.

Superstition is a kind of maladaptive behaviour that arises from what is normally a very good thing – the ability of the brain to predict - Elena Daprati

Skinner described the birds’ behaviour as a kind of superstition, and speculated that a similar psychological process could drive many human rituals. Skinner’s initial results have been questioned by other scientists, but later experiments provide substantial support for the general idea. It seems that the brain is constantly looking for associations among our behaviour, our environment and the rewards that we seek – and quite often, it can come to the wrong conclusions. 

“Superstition is a kind of maladaptive behaviour that arises from what is normally a very good thing – the ability of the brain to predict,” says Elena Daprati, a neuroscientist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata. 

Daprati’s own research has showed further evidence for this theory. In a 2019 paper, her team showed that individual differences in implicit learning – the brain’s ability to non-consciously pick up patterns – can explain why some people are more likely to form superstitious habits than others

In one task, for instance, participants viewed a series of shapes appearing on a screen. Each time, they had to quickly identify whether it was the same shape or different to the one before. Unbeknown to the participants, the colour of the previous shape could predict where the next appeared on the screen. Participants who learnt to pick up on that pattern should be able to focus their attention and make their choice more rapidly. Besides taking this test, the participants also completed a questionnaire that measured how superstitious they were in everyday life. 

If superstitious behaviours arise as a by-product of our ability to form associations, then you would expect more superstitious people to perform better on this task – and this was exactly what Daprati found. “Superstitious individuals generally pick up on the cue and use it,” she says. 

In everyday life, this associative learning might lead us to settle on a ‘lucky’ pen that seems to deliver particularly good grades in exams, or a certain suit that we feel guarantees a good job interview. Creative tasks are especially rife with uncertainty – which may explain why thinkers like Gates, Beethoven and Dickens adopted such specific behaviours to get their thoughts flowing. 

The problem of ‘over-imitating’ 

Once rituals informed from superstitious learning exist, they can extend their influence beyond their creator.    

Emilia Rovira Nordman, an associate professor of marketing at Mälardalen University in Sweden, highlights an example from academia. It is notoriously difficult to get a new paper accepted by a prestigious journal, she says, and researchers will often find spurious reasons for their successes and failures. They will then pass on that advice to their colleagues and students – meaning that others will start to adopt the same arbitrary rules when preparing and submitting papers.

We're conditioned to admire successful people and mimic their habits - even if some of these habits are eccentric (Credit: Getty)

We're conditioned to admire successful people and mimic their habits - even if some of these habits are eccentric (Credit: Getty)

Something similar may be occurring on a much grander scale, thanks to media, when a billionaire, acclaimed author or world-class athlete tells us about their daily routine. Some of their behaviours will have been acquired through superstitious learning – and we may then follow their advice as if it were the gospel truth. 

A key reason for this is that humans are social creatures; we are primed to look to people of higher status for advice. Various studies over the past decade have shown that we have a tendency to “over-imitate” when we learn from others, copying every action they perform, even if there is no obvious logical reason for a particular deed. Often, we simply don’t even question the reason for doing something – we just assume that it must have a purpose. 

Given this tendency, it may be only natural that, reading a biography of a famous writer or watching an interview with a billionaire businessperson, we are tempted to take on their idiosyncratic rites and rituals in the hope that we can somehow achieve the same success, without recognising how many other factors – including sheer chance – would have played a role in their achievements. 

Don’t stop believin’ 

In some cases, when spurious associations influence high-level decision-making, superstitious learning may be costly. One 2020 study of Swedish biotech companies found that two CEOs who had come to associate certain marketing strategies with success religiously repeated the same steps in their new start-ups – even though there was no logical reason to think that the specific approach could work again. 

“Their abilities to connect actions to outcomes were incorrectly specified,” says Rovira Nordman, who was a co-author of the study. She suggests that whenever we are making an important decision, we apply our critical thinking to question all the assumptions that we are making and the evidence for them. “You should remain suspicious,” she says. 

Often, however, the rituals that we acquire take very little effort. (There’s no real harm, after all, in counting your coffee beans, apart from a slight waste of time.) And whether you have learnt it yourself, or copied it from others, the very act of performing the routine could help you feel more focused and determined. “[Rituals] can reduce stress and give you the feeling that you are in control of the situation,” says Rovira Nordman. 

Daprati suggests that this may even be the reason that we persist in these behaviours; although the initial association with success may have been illusory, the positive mindset that it produces really does improve our performance the next time, so we do it again and again. One study showed that basketball players tend to be more accurate in their shots if they first go through a specific “pre-performance routine”, such as spinning or kissing the ball. Other studies have found that asking participants to perform small rituals can improve everything from academic performance to pitch accuracy in karaoke singing. In some ways, it’s a bit like the placebo effect in medicine – the sense that you are doing something positive can itself change the outcome. 

Given these findings, we need not be embarrassed by the little rituals that pepper our days; if the action costs nothing and helps you to feel a bit more in control of your day, it’s perfectly rational to continue. Whether you’ve been inspired by past experience or are mimicking your heroes, your arbitrary rituals may just push you a little a bit closer to the success you seek.

David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.