7 Weird Superstitions and Rituals of Scientists
Published: Jan 24, 2018 By Mark Terry
The late author Michael Crichton, famous for Jurassic Park and other novels, reportedly had a ritual where whatever meal he ate the day he started a novel, he then ate every day until it was completed. Wade Boggs, Hall of Fame baseball player, would field exactly 150 ground balls in pre-game practice, start batting practice at exactly 5:17 PM during night games, and run wind sprints at exactly 7:17 PM. He also always reportedly ate a chicken dinner before each game. Basketball great Michael Jordan always wore his lucky shorts from the University of Northern Carolina (UNC) under his Chicago Bulls uniform in every game.
Rituals and superstitions are common. They’re certainly common in sports, but they’re also common everywhere else. Stuart Vyse, an emeritus behavioral scientist at Connecticut College in New London, studied the psychology of superstition. He was quoted in a recent article in the journal Nature, saying, “By the very nature of the word, experiments are often not going to work. Once the person has done everything they can think of that rationally can help the outcome, then they are looking for something extra.”
Does this apply to scientists as well? Do these supposedly super-rational people have their own superstitions and rituals that they apply to their work? You bet.
Here are just some of those noted in the Nature article:
- In Robert Froemke’s laboratory at the New York University School of Medicine, there are a group of students and postdocs that widely break into two groups: one that watch their experiments obsessively, believing that if they leave, the experiment will fail, and the other group that “leave their experiments to run unmonitored to avoid ‘jinxing’ the results.”
- In 2007, Jessica Curteman, then a master’s student in archaeology at Oregon State University dug up a rock that looked like the head of the Loch Ness monster. She used a marker pen and drew an eye on it. Now “Rock Ness” watches over Curteman’s digs. She is now a senior archaeologist for the cultural-resources department of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon.
- Benelita Elie, a doctoral student in cancer biology at the City University of New York programs her music playlists to match the tempo of her benchwork. “It gives me predictability,” the Nature article reported, “in a space where there is a lot of unpredictability.”
- When he was a graduate student at Brown University, Michael Long, now a neuroscientist at New York University School of Medicine, had a ritual of having a hot-dog lunch at Spike’s Junkyard Dogs, because he believed it helped him with his work studying rodent brains. “The days I ate at Spike’s, I had beautiful slices. It happened every time, so then everyone else in the lab started going to Spike’s more,” Long claims.
- It is apparently common in Japan for universities to hold a memorial service every year for the animals that have been killed in experiments. Naoki Morishita, an ethics professor at Hamamatsu University School of Medicine in Japan, has studied the services, noting they are rooted in Japanese cultural and spiritual beliefs. “Community with the soul of the dead is at the heart of it,” he told Nature. “Japanese researchers participate to express feelings of gratitude and appreciation. They do not feel calm without it. In that sense, the memorial service is important for them.”
- Walt Koenig, a behavioral ecologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, conducts research on acorn woodpeckers, finding their nests and tagging the birds. One of his rituals is: “When I finish banding and measuring them, I kiss them on the head and say, ‘Live long and prosper.’”
- Loren Davis, an archaeologist at Oregon State University, who was Jessica Curteman’s advisory professor, carries a replica of a 13,000-year-old spear point in his pocket. He carries it to remind him of how much luck plays a role in science. In a field trip he took in 1997, he accidentally used an incorrect compass setting to lay a baseline. The result was he shifted his field site… and accidentally uncovered a pit filled with stone tools, spear points and other artifacts. “If I had not set the line wrong,” Davis told Nature, “we would have missed it.”
Dimitris Xygalatas, an experimental anthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, notes several studies where repetitive hand movements and ritualistic prayers were shown to decrease anxiety. One group was asked to prepare a speech on a piece of art. The control group wasn’t given the assignment. Both groups were then tasked with cleaning the artwork. While doing so, their hand movements were recorded and analyzed. The high-stress group had more repetitive and ritualized hand movements. On the subject of rituals and charms in general, Xygalatas told Nature, “We know the world is a very chaotic place, and we have no control over most of it. But we can trick ourselves.”
There may be other factors than responses to stress or even self-delusion. In 2010, researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany ran what is now dubbed the “golf ball study.” Participants in the study were to knock a golf ball into a cup using a putter. Half of the study participants were told, when they were given the ball, “This ball has been lucky today.” The others were just given the ball. Better than 80 percent of the participants claimed to believe in good luck. At the end of the experiment, the “lucky ball group” had significantly better results in sinking their putt compared to the control group.
The researchers conducted similar studies with other superstitions and groups and tasks with similar results. Stuart Vyse, writing for CSI, noted, “Of course, there still was no magic, but these studies seemed to have demonstrated that believing in luck gave participants the confidence to perform better than they otherwise would. A phenomenon long speculated to be a possibility had finally been demonstrated in a laboratory setting.”
Or as Kevin Costner’s character in the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” says, “If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you are! And you should know that!”
Researchers at Dominion University in Illinois attempted to duplicate the golf ball study (Calin-Jageman and Caldwell 2014), but couldn’t. It was a larger study than the German study, included more than three times as many golfers, and required pre-registration, meaning that the purpose and methods of the study were known ahead of time. As Vyse notes, “So, at least with respect to the effect of luck of putting performance, the jury is still out.”
Keis Ohtsuka, a senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University, wrote a 2016 article for The Conversation titled, “Why People Love to Delude Themselves with Sports Rituals and Superstitions.” In it, he wrote, “In evolutionary terms, humans have perfected the skills of gathering and processing information in order to find regular patterns that help them predict the future outcome of events. … We know that the outcome is unpredictable, if not entirely random, but we cannot help trying to influence the results by adopting some superstitious behavior or rituals with our actions. This is a cognitive mechanism that reduces our anxiety and focuses us on the game. Superstitions and rituals help create a sense of imaginary control over a game’s unpredictable outcome.”
Better not stop them, though, just in case.