Lucky Roman goddess keeps watch

In his 1927 opus, The Goddess Fortuna in Medieval Literature, Howard Patch states, “Fortune is highly variable and scarcely knows her own mind…he is a fool who trusts in her. For her wheel cannot stop: she would cease to be Fortuna if she ceased to be changeable.”

In other words, only a fool trusts in luck. At least that’s what common sense dictates. Interestingly, a new article authored by Kathleen Doheny for Health Day news suggests that it might not be so cut and dried.

In her article, Doheny cites a collection of scientific studies that focus on perceptions of luck — and the effect of a “lucky charm” in particular. She quotes Lysann Damisch, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Cologne in Germany, who has conducted a series of experiments focused on the topic of luck. According to Damisch, having some kind of lucky token appears to increase self-confidence and thus performance.

Damisch was moved to study the link after she noticed that many prominent athletes hold superstitions. Anyone who’s ever been in the locker room of a team on a winning streak knows the potency of these talismanic acts. Unwashed “lucky” socks… unshaven beards… fetishized pieces of equipment all become imbued with a mystical force to shift the game’s outcome.

According to Damisch, prime examples are found in basketball legend, Michael Jordan, and golfing superstar, Tiger Woods. Jordan wore his University of North Carolina team shorts under his NBA uniform for good luck. Similarly, Woods sports a red shirt on tournament Sundays.

To gauge the perceived effect of lucky items, Damisch asked experimental subjects to bring a charm to the study center. The individuals presented a variety of items, such as wedding rings, special stones and well-loved stuffed animals.

After removing the good luck charms to take a photograph, the researchers returned the charms to half the participants and told the others they would get theirs back later. The participants then took a computerized memory test. Those who had their lucky charms did better. Other evaluations attributed the difference to greater confidence.

In another experiment, 28 subjects practiced putting golf balls. Some were given golf balls deemed to be “lucky.” Others received golf balls with no mention of luck. According to the authors of the study, those with the “lucky’” golf balls performed better.

Damisch concludes that superstitious beliefs may boost confidence, “Especially in situations where people feel a bit insecure and thus want to gain some confidence — for example, before a tournament, an exam, a job interview, an audition, our results suggest that it is helpful to have a little lucky charm close by.”

Even so, Damisch cautions that a talisman’s power to bring good fortune is not a sure thing: “This strategy of course still does not guarantee that people win the tournament, pass the exam or get the job, but it seems that they perform at least a little bit better than without a lucky charm close by.”

She’s certainly correct about that. Jordan lost many games while wearing those shorts. Tiger found many a bunker and bogey while donning his iconic red polo.

Perhaps the take away point form all these studies is a simple one: we make our own luck. Sometimes we just need a little reminder that we have skills, power and knowledge — lucky charms or not.