The Irrationality of Psychologists

In celebration of its 150th issue, The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest has asked some of the world’s foremost psychologists to share one nagging thing they still don’t understand about themselves. Their responses are varied and fascinating. David Lavallee, for example, wonders about his superstitious golf behaviors: “While I appreciate that carrying the same amount of tees in my pocket during a round will not help me play better, or the action of always marking my golf ball on the green with a coin placed ‘heads-up’ will not influence the outcome (making the putt), I will probably continue to resort to such behaviors as if I was one of Skinner’s pigeons.” [%comments]


i would assert the placebo effect for superstitions- even though the event has no causality, it raises our hopes for a good outcome, which in itself can help lead to a good outcome


Re: David Lavallee ... wonders about his superstitious golf behaviors: While I appreciate that ... always marking my golf ball on the green with a coin placed ‘heads-up' will not influence the outcome (making the putt) ..."

That superstitious behavior may heighten Dr. Lavallee's attention to the ball, the golf course, to his plan and his outcome expectations. That behavior bodes again impulsivity because that it focuses the player on the game. It may spark imaginal rehearsal. Additionally, since it is a repetative behavior or ritual, it may lower anxiety to a more optimal level.

All these factors may underlie an association between a behavior rooted in superstition and a positive outcome.

When one engages in a superstitious behavior, that is not all one engages in.

Pamela Kaden, Psy.D

@Pamela: Knowing that the actions will have no effect should alone be enough to discount them altogether. To say that it focuses his attention on the game or sparks his imaginal rehearsal doesn't really follow from merely carrying an equal number of tees in either pocket or ensuring the coin is heads up. In fact, it can be argued that such behaviour can even be distracting and counter-productive (versus potentially good habits such as taking dummy swings or walking from the hole to the ball on the greens). It's merely a compulsive habit and an idiosyncrasy.

Economically, this has to do with marginal investments and sunken costs. This knowledge is also used in online surveys: once you fill out 20 form fields, you are presented with 5 new fields and you continue to fill those out to avoid wasting the 20 you filled earlier. In Lavallee's scenario, his psychology is probably similar, in that "I have done this for years. If I stop now, all those years will will have been for nothing". In fact if he stops now, it will be an acknowledgement that he has been engaging in this act for years without any rhyme or reason and it was wasted effort. He would rather not cut his losses and acknowledge that fact but continues to engage in the behaviour and falsely believes that the behaviour actually helps.



"placebo effect for superstitions"

i've never heard it put that way, but i'd have to agree that many superstitions create self-fulfilling prophecies.


When I was in college I fell into a pattern while taking tests during midtems. I brought 4 sharp No. 2 pencils wrapped in a rubber band. If it was a closed book/closed note test, I brought no additional "cramming" materials with me. I always wore dark blue. During finals week, I didn't shave.

Some might call these supersitions. I called them rituals. They helped me enter "The Zone" while taking tests. I was able to correctly answer problems on the test that I knew I wouldn't be able to answer as homework assignments.

Did these rituals work to help me get into a mental state to be able to do well on my tests? I think they did. I graduated Magna Cum Laude and I was invited into Phi Beta Kappa.


I also graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Theta Kappa (Associate's Degree), but I didn't have any pre-test rituals. I always made sure I had a pen and other materials necessary for the test, and I also stopped cramming the day of the test as additional info just bolluxed up my head, but I had no irrational, repetitive behaviors to prepare for the exam. I just sat down, cleared my mind and tuned everything out except the test questions. You really don't need them to perform well, you only think you do. Mind over matter folks! Try it.
Needing special pencils or luck charms would have been problematic in my case as some of my tests were delivered via viewing samples through microscopes and we moved from station to station during a timed period. So long as I had one writing instrument, I was good. Extraneous materials would have added time to my moves.

the real rationality

What is the point? People are superstitious. My mom was. So--particularly when it came to numbers. And it got worse later in life-- She increasingly lost touch with reality. Wednesday's were particularly difficult because that's the day my dad died several years earlier. And Friday the 13th --

There is a real side to this- I believe that family matters and act that way-- whether real accurate or not. The point is, I act that way. This happened in ancient times, re (ancestral spirits giving advice) and I know of one instance of someone adopted- who does not know it --curiously, this person's behavior would suggest that the person knows their background- though I know they don't - By contrast, I know of someone who was child # 2 (not an only child) and acted like the trouble maker throughout their lives (not realizing they were acting in accordance with what one would expect. from the second child-- even if they were technically the only (since child # 1 died before birth). my point- with self knowledge, I can alter my behavior consistent with it.


science minded

Dear the real rationality;

You pose a curious question re the science of psychology that makes me think of my dogs and cats. I have two dogs. They are not really related by blood--but they act like sisters (older and younger). I have two cats. They too are not really related (by blood), but they act like mother and daughter. So what makes for the difference?

PS. I hearsay that people who talk to themselves have money in the bank-- superstition (False) or true? A bit of both? Neither cat speaks directly to the other, but the daugther dog does speak to the daughter cat. They are dying to become friends. So I brought the dog to pay a visit to the cat today for the first time. The cat came real close (10" away and plopped herself down). The dog looked quietly on- first shaking a bit and then calmly. So birds of a feather flock together?

Robyn Goldstein, 2003