On Examination Superstitions

Although it is time for seasonal cheer, beer, what have you – the end of our school year for us in the southern hemisphere includes a fresh batch of abandoned lucky charms to clean out of my classroom.

It’s a part of what I study – superstitions. Being superstitious is a world-wide phenomenon. Many of us may have been like one of my students, going in for their exam and carrying with the pencils a cute little item or toy (as famously demonstrated by Mr Bean in this popular episode), wear a certain item of clothing or perform a ritual (not necessarily a religious one) that will you feel comfortable about the potential outcome of the test… even though it might seem absurd upon reflection to believe that a green-haired troll will have any influence whatsoever on your performance in Calculus.

Here’s this year’s batch that I uncovered during my clean out, mostly left lying under desks or on the window-sill:

Rather religious in theme, I know. I think it’s a cement Buddha. Either that or a schoolie celebrating the arrival of happy-hour wine.


I think this little guy was of big help during the Biology exam’s ‘evolution’ section. Or at least he could have helped curse the inevitable betrayal of multiple choice questions that no one was prepared for. Grr… arghh…

Best place to start learning about superstitions? A book called ‘Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition‘, by Stuart A. Vyse. He writes that ‘while no simply psychological truth can account for such diverse practices as numerology, psychokinesis, and the use of good-luck charms, modern psychology can account for many of our common superstitions – they are not abnormal.

They are, in fact, a largely predictable outcome of the processes that control human learning and cognition. Indeed, some of the characteristics that have led to our emergence as the dominant species on the earth, are the very ones that make us superstitious.’

As I write this for the podcast – I have three little lucky charms left on my desk, which are about two years old. They were abandoned, after the final year exams were completed. One is a cement Buddha, rather cheerful in appearance. Another is a tiny triceratops, who might have  ‘cursed the inevitable betrayal of multiple choice questions’. Finally, a tiny zombie pirate, ready to face an Accounting exam. Grr… arghh…

So – what going on? These are final year high-school students, and extremely intelligent ones. Why are they taking their assorted tokens or wearing those smelly socks to an exam? Why is this considered not abnormal by Vyse? Discriminative stimulus and partial reinforcement – we do what works for us, because it worked before or maybe they’ve seen it happen with others who succeeded, is one excuse.

When an organism (whether it’s person, pigeon or whatever) learns to make a particular response in the presence of one stimulus but not another – such as touching a bar when you see a green light, but not a red light – then stimulus discrimination has occurred. Your response is now under stimulus control. In general, it allows you to learn what is appropriate (or reinforced) or not appropriate (not reinforced) in particular situations.

Partial reinforcement with lucky charms or ritualistic behaviour is seen in many scenarios beyond the humble examination room – some of the more popularly known include sporting rituals – a fixed sequence of actions like how you put on your batting gloves (as with many sporting people – like when Jelena Dokic bounces the ball a certain number of times), or wearing ‘lucky items’. It even extends to group mentality with people watching the game – how many of us wear lucky team shirts or feel things will go well if you sit together with friends or in a area of the stadium?

If the ‘lucky’ ritual precedes success long enough, failure to execute it will distress and actually impede your performance. You build up enough confidence about having your plastic dinosaur on your desk, saying ‘merde‘ before you dance ballet or chewing mints before the exam (which was my ritual), you’re going to feel more confident in yourself.

This then influences your performance – an ‘A’ seems guaranteed because you walk in fully prepared with Minties on your side!

Some of the research on the phenomena of taking your lucky charm to a test also includes a popular author who has written a few popular science books on the subject. If you’ve read Dr Richard Wiseman’s ‘Quirkology – How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things‘ or checked his website, you may have already noticed he has a paper on how a popular measure of superstitions called the ‘Belief in the Paranormal Scale’ by Tobayck doesn’t take into account attitudes towards lucky charms:

…the PBS refers solely to negative superstitions (e.g., breaking a mirror will cause bad luck) and omits items referring to positive superstitions (e.g., carrying a lucky charm will bring good luck). Positive superstitions may serve different psychological functions to negative superstitions. Indeed, as with other forms of “positive illusions”, beliefs in positive superstitions may be psychologically adaptive.

That’s the kind of research that myself and Dr Martin Bridgstock (his book is Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal) drew upon in the creation of our own paranormal belief scales. Superstitions are common in situations where you are unsure about the outcome or the consequences can range from unpleasant to even fatal.

The belief that they work is supernatural, writes Bruce M. Hood in his book ‘SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable’:

It lingers in the background of our minds, waiting for an opportunity to make a guest appearance at times of stress, when rationality can so easily abandon us. ‘Doing nothing’ is sometimes not an option – and anything we feel that can affect outcome is better than nothing, because an inability to act can be psychologically distressing. We want control in a situation where we feel there is no control.

Despite the supernatural element –  they can work. They can reduce stress. I suggest to future students that they don’t become so reliant on objects external to them, however. Dinosaurs that could be misplaced, a lucky coin could get stolen. Find a comfort zone that you can replicate without too much trouble, perhaps rituals that can be done anywhere or items that can be replaced.

I return back to the classroom in January when the school year in Australia begins again – so I’ll probably see a whole bunch of new lucky charms pop up on examination room tables as I do my own multiple choice puzzlings.

Maybe this year I’ll keep a toy pigeon to perch on my desk, just to amuse myself…

References and Further Reading:

Pearson, G. (2000, July 2). Rite-minded: Sports fans find rituals help them get through the game.Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Renard, J.B. & Walker, S.R. (1987). The idea of chance: attitudes and superstitions. Diogenes, Dec 1987; vol. 35: pp. 111 – 140.

Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. (2004). Measuring superstitious belief: Why lucky charms matter. Personality and Individual Differences, 37, 1533-1541.

Vyse, S.A. (2000). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition (2nd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.

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