Magical thinking and sports superstitions

[Note: this post was written a few days ago, but I waited to post it because I did not want to jinx my team.]

The phrase “magical thinking” has slightly different meanings when it is used in different contexts. In the context of mental and emotional health, magical thinking is a symptom of various disorders, including OCD. A person who expects things to change just because of thoughts in that person’s head or actions that person does, in spite of the fact that there is no connection between the thoughts or actions and the expected change, is subject to magical thinking. Let me add two thoughts to this paragraph. First, I am not an expert in psychology, and other people can explain this symptom better than I can. Second, I am in no way mocking anyone suffering from a disorder that includes magical thinking. What I am writing is sincere, and it is largely based on observing my own thoughts and actions.

In the sports world, many athletes have customs so ingrained that they are considered superstitious. Some pitchers, for example, will be careful to enter and leave the baseball field jumping over the chalk line instead of stepping on it. Some batters will continue to wear the same socks every game as long as they are in a hitting streak. It is considered bad luck to talk to a pitcher who is pitching so well that the other team has not gotten a hit. Many other customs are followed by athletes, even though their customs should have nothing to do with their performance. Some studies indicate that these superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies. People perform better in sports when they have been convinced that luck is on their side.

The athletes are not the only ones who are superstitious. Fans can also believe that their traditions or actions might affect the outcome of a game. If two fans go to the ballpark and their team is losing, they might exchange seats to see if that changes the team’s luck. Many fans, in the ballpark and watching on television, believe that the clothes they are wearing will bring their team luck. Some fans even choose not to attend the games because “they lose every time I come to the ballpark.”

The Chicago Bulls won enough games this season to enter the basketball playoffs. Their first opponent was the Milwaukee Bucks.  I was able to watch the first two games, both of which the Bulls won. The third game was not available where I live, but I checked the internet for the score a few times during the game, and the Bulls won that game too.

The Chicago Bulls won six championships back in the 1990s when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the team. My children and I watched the games on television, and we had a bowl of pretzels for a snack. To keep the children from emptying the bowl early in the game, I limited the number of pretzels each could eat. Somehow we started the custom of each eating one pretzel after one of the Bulls players had done something especially well. “Give that man a pretzel,” I would say, and we each would eat a pretzel.

So, after the third victory, I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of pretzels. During the fourth game, I ate a pretzel for every basket and every good defensive move by a Bulls player. The Bulls lost that game, but it was a close game. For the next game, I watched again with my bag of pretzels, again eating a pretzel for every good play. They lost again.

For the sixth game, I decided to leave my pretzels upstairs. This time the Bulls won, meaning that they would next play the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the first game of that series, I again left the pretzels upstairs. The Bulls won the game.

Can you see where this is going? There is no way that my eating pretzels or not eating pretzels can change the course of a professional basketball game. Even so, I want the Bulls to win, and if they lose while I am eating pretzels, then I will not eat a pretzel on game day.

For this reason, when the Bulls lost their second game to Cleveland, I went upstairs after the game and ate some pretzels. Magical thinking or not, I will do everything I can to help the team win another championship.


[Postscript: The day after I wrote this post, the Bulls began a three-game losing streak that knocked them out of the playoffs. Feel free to tell me that it’s not my fault; I won’t believe you. J.]