Sport Superstition as a Function of Skill Level and Task Difficulty

Perry B. Wright and Kristi J. Erdal Colorado College

Gmelch 's (1974) claim that professional athletes were more superstitious during difftcult tasks than easy tasks was tested in a golf putting experiment. Forty college students. 26 male and 14 female, of varying golfing abilities, were tested in 20 easy putts from 3 feet, and 20 difftcult putts from 9 feet. Using four colored balls, superstitious behavior was defined as selecting the same colored ball after a made putt, consistent with the methodology of Van Raalte, Brewer, Nemeroff, and Under (1991). Skill level was assessed by a median split of total putts made. There was a signiftcant interaction between level ofputt difficulty and skill level on superstitious behavior. Low skill participants were more superstitious in the easy putting task than the difficult putting task, and high skill participants were more superstitious in the difficult putting task than the easy putting task. Gmelch's claims were .supported by the high skill participants' behavior and may be explained by the uncertainty hypothesis. The tow skill participants' behavior did not support Gmelch's claims, and may be better explained by the reciprocal nature of learned helplessness and superstitious behavior.

Address Correspondence To: Kristi J. Erdal, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Colorado College, 14 East Cache La Poudre Street, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80903, Phone: 719-3896598, E-mail: kerdal@ColoradoCollege.edu. 187

and superstition in sport. such as carrying a rabbit's foot to bring good luck. One condition that appears to be common for all superstitious behavior is situations of uncertainty. such as taking a deep breath before shooting a free throw in basketball. & Ploszay. 1997). The pigeons repeated specific behaviors that appeared to result in positive reinforcement. 31. Vyse. 1997). that behavior should not be considered superstitious. Skinner (1948) was one of the first to document 'superstition' as a way of describing the behaviors pigeons showed when reinforced with food on a fixed time interval. Humans demonstrate much of the same behavior as Skinner's (1948) pigeons (Ciborowski. It may also provide a foundation for the illusion of control. Czech. Cohn. Jahoda (1969) reported a distinction between 'causal' superstition and 'coincidental' superstition. Superstitious behavior may be generated . A causal superstition was suggested to be part of a conscious belief. 1980). while a coincidental superstition was more ambiguous about what behaviors individuals believed caused a particular outcome.188 /Journal of Sport Behavior. Ritual is typically defined as a conscious activity that focuses on coping with a high-stress situation. What is paradoxical is that performing an action or carrying a lucky object as a way of controlling external factors may actually provide physical or mental relief to the point that it directly affects performance. Similar to rituals. 2005. 1979. termed the "uncertainty hypothesis" (Burger & Lynn. which have been shown to effectively improve performance (Burke. Vyse (1997) suggested that the basic human desire to gain control in ambiguous situations was a significant motivating factor in superstitious behavior display. When put in situations of uncertainty. The pigeons were presented with a situation in which it was unclear why and when food reinforcement was to be given. Indeed. 1990). pre-performance routines are specific actions and movements. Ciborowski and Jahoda both suggested that superstition was an accumulation of conditioned responses which provided a foundation for a conscious belief about causality. Superstition is wholly about the illusion of control. Skinner suggested that these behaviors were a result of the pigeons' chance actions being paired unintentionally with the reinforcement. superstition may be seen as a psychological placebo (Neil. Rudski (2004) defined superstition as a person's false belief that s/he can influence an outcome in a situation when realistically s/he has no control. Vyse (1997) made the distinction that a routine became superstition when an action gained special magical significance. 2 Superstition appears to arise from situations of uncertainty (Burger & Lynn. believing there to be a causal link between these objects or actions and particular results. pre-performance routines. which seemed to give the pigeon an illusion of control over the food presentation. It is often difficult to draw a distinction between rituals. individuals may try to achieve control by investing in irrelevant objects or actions. 2004. Feison & Gmelch. No. Ciborowski (1997) argued that if an individual believed that a particular behavior could improve performance. such as taking practice swings before hitting a golf ball. Vol. 2005).

participants were put in a situation in which if was unclear how points could be gained or how to prevent points from being taken. The present study was modeled after the Van Raalte et al. Nemeroff. With the aim of achieving the most points. while attributing outcomes to uncontrollable factors has been consistently associated with low self-efficacy and learned helplessness (Bandura. and that people create superstitions based on their apparent success or failure in a task. Before testing began. Neil. included participants without restriction due to skill levels. The Van Raalte et al. the attempt to gain control through superstitious behavior may have a positive affect on self-efTlcacy. the participants were given the opportunity to choose from four different colored balls. selecting the same colored ball after a made putt was operationally defined as superstitious behavior. That is... Because of the ambiguous nature of point distribution./189 by needs to establish control as well as to enhance self-efficacy. which predict display of superstitious behavior. Seligman.5 meters. & Sheppard. Van Raalte. 1995). . After each putt. no attempt to gain control and engage in superstitious behavior may indicate very low self-efficacy and even learned helplessness. Participants completed a 100 trial computer task which involved choosing between two letters. 1975). Researchers have found that sport has an inherent quality of creating situations of uncertainty. In contrast. - Sport Superstition as a Function ofSkili and Difficulty. Participants tended to show a 'Win-Sfay. 1987). Haney & Long. attributing outcomes to controllable factors has been consistently associated with high self-efficacy (Bandura. and assessed the impact of task difficulty on superstitious behavior. participants were assigned to groups in which points were either randomly awarded or subtracted with different probabilities. and Albert (1999) conducted an experiment in which participants were put in situations of uncertainty. experiment but utilized a different method of ego-involvement.. and Linder (1991) had participants hit 50 total putts on a putting green from a distance of 3. 1997. Lose-Shift strategy' (Ono. / Rudski. indicating that people often repeated responses that resulted in positive outcomes and changed responses after receiving a negative outcome. 1997. 1987). Lischner. Using the 'Win-Stay. Brewer. As expected. (1991) study offered a way in which superstitious behavior could be quantified and experimentally assessed in sport while most other research on sport superstition has been qualitative and/or correlational (Anderson.. participants began to generate superstitious rules for point acquisition. In one of the only experimental designs to elicit superstitious behavior in sport. Lose-Shift strategy' (Ono. The study suggested that the development of superstitious behavior was a function of different reinforcement schedules. Superstitious rule generation and having confidence in these rules increased as the probability of receiving positive reinforcements increased. there was a negative correlation between chance orientation and the number of times the participants selected the same colored ball after a made putt. In situations of uncertainty.

As predicted. Brown and Todd (2003) assessed differences in superstitious behavior between NCAA Division 1 and Division 111 track and field athletes. 2005. 31. indicating that attributing failure to one's lack of effort rather than to some external source of luck is a culturally derived concept. 1982. Japanese players were more likely to believe that their performance was a reflectioii of their effort. The batters were scored on 33 preset superstitious movements. however. No. Burger and Lynn (2005) successfully found cross-cultural differences in superstitious practices between Japanese and American professional baseball players. Ciborowski observed that the amount of extra superstitious movements increased wben the team was losing or the outcome was uncertain. whereas. Because a greater level of athletic identity is indicative of greater ego-involvement (Brewer. such as touching a particular body part. Division 1 track and field athletes showed significantly more superstitious behavior and athletic identity than tbe Division MI track and field athletes. & Van Raalte. tbe Japanese baseball players were less likely to behave superstitiously than the American baseball players. Buhrman. Bubrmann et al. 1993).Gmelcb. the athletes were surprised at the number of extra movements they made while batting. 1919). they did not find that females demonstrated more superstitious bebavior. gripping the bat in different ways. Ciborowski. 2 1981. Females were more concerned with appearance rituals. & Zaugg. male superstition was related to equipment use and repetitive actions. these findings supported Anderson et al. rather. 1997.190/Journal of Sport Behavior. 1997). tbe type of rituals performed between genders was significantly different.. Contrary to historical research (e.g. (1981) studied male and female hockey players and found minimal differences between the genders. (1982) tested the differences in superstition rituals between male and female basketball players. 1974). and tbey denied that there was a causal connection between those superstitious movements and a foreseeable outcome. Tbe results illustrated tbat athletic identity and external locus of control had a positive relationship with superstitious behavior. Ciborowski researched a collegiate baseball team over three years by video recording the players during their games. consistent with Anderson's (1999) findings tbat individuals from collectivist societies were more likely to take responsibility for failure than individuals from individualistic societies. uniformly. Brown & Todd. Burger & Lynn. 2003. Brown. compared to when the team . Vol. Conklin. Anderson et al. Linder. Japanese players took more responsibility for poor performance than American players. tbey established that superstitions were more a function ofthe level of athletic involvement. not luck. During interviews. or stepping in and out ofthe batter's box.'s (1981) researcb tbat ego-involvement was a key element in the development of sport superstitions. Baseball itself has been anecdotally described to be a sport that yields the most superstitious behaviors (Ciborowski.

A standard golf hole was cut in the wood. A blackboard was used to record names and rankings.Spori Superstition as a Function of Skill and Difficulty. whereas an exceptional batter only gets a hit 1/3 of the time he or she steps up to the plate.. The purpose of this study was to test the ideas Gmelch (1974) developed through observation in baseball. . red.. with the experimenlal method developed by Van Raalte et al. and green felt turf was nailed to the top of the board. (1991). Gmelch (1974) had stated that baseball players were more likely to behave superstitiously while batting rather than fielding. and the difficult condition was a nine-foot putt. The easy condition was a three-foot putt. pink. Method Participants Participants were 26 male and 14 female undergraduate students. Being comfortably in the lead seemed to provide a greater sense of control and a lack of need to appeal to luck for success. These success ratios paralleled Gmelch's (1974) observations. All participants were given $5 compensation and the incentive to win $50 for making the most putts. Three pieces of 2" x 4" wood were nailed to the edges of the board to provide bumpers. and chartreuse). Consistent with Gmelch's hypothesis about situalional difficulty increasing superstitious behavior. Golfing skill was not a prerequisite for participation. As in Van Raalte et al. An 8' PVC pipe was propped at an anglefromthe back of a chair near the experimenter to a small bucket in the seat of another chair by the participant in order to return the ball to the participant. Gmelch hypothesized that the amount of superstitious behavior was a function of the level of difficulty and uncertainty of the task. four colored balls were used (royal blue.'s (1991) experiment. He explained that fielding is an activity that typically yields a high rate of success. Gmeich never tested this hypothesis. Materials The golf-putting apparatus was a 4'X 16'board elevated T from the floor on lOcinder blocks. Consistent with the uncertainty hypothesis. it was hypothesized that participants would show more superstitious behavior (choosing the same color ball after a made putt) when completing a difficult golf-putting task as compared to an easier putting task./191 was comfortably winning. established after 11 pilot participants averaged 3/10 made putts on the difficult condition and 9/10 on the easy condition. and Ciborowski's (1997) observations that more superstitious behavior arose in situations of greater risk and more uncertainty. Because batting yields such a low rate of success compared to fielding.

Vol.9. Once the experimenter looked up at the participant. s/he could then prepare for the next shot.9.192 /Journal of sport Behavior. pick one ball at a time out of the bucket. at which time they were told that the procedure must remain the same for each participant in order to reduce "extraneous variables. (1991).54.62. The participants were eligible to win $50 if they made the most points. This was actually to allow time for the ball that was just used to get back to the bucket so that the participants could choose from all four balls on each trial. All participants were led to believe that their names and rankings would be posted on the blackboard. No.88.5 feet." The experimenter explained that after each shot the participant must stay still until the experimenter finished recording data and observations. and take three practice putts from a distance of 3. The dependent measure was superstitious behavior. They were told that the study assessed how one's attitude positively or negatively affected their putting ability.31) and the difficult condition (M .41). and what color ball they used. /(39) = -. The participants signed an informed consent form after which they filled out a filler "attitudes" questionnaire. the following rules of the competition were explained to the participants. 31. The participants took 20 shots from the difficult condition and 20 from the easy condition. 10 females and 10 males). After completing the putting. They were asked to step up on the putting green. Each participant received one point for every made putt from the easy condition and two points for every made putt from the difficult condition. and that their names and rankings would not stay up on the blackboard. A median split was performed in order to assess the impact of skill level on superstitious behavior. participants were debriefed about the deception. Results '^ The primary independent variable of the experiment was the putting distances between the easy and difficult conditions. 2 Procedure Upon arriving at the lab. determined by the number of times a made putt was coupled with staying with the same colored ball. A coin was flipped to determine which condition the participant would do first. They were then given their compensation. in order to increase ego-involvement. A paired Mest revealed no significant difference between the number of superstitious behaviors in the easy condition (A/ ^ 8. SD ^ 5. consistent with Van Raalte et al. p = . SD = 5. and those who made more than 20 putts were considered of high skill (« . They were told that the attitude questionnaire was a filler. The participants removed their shoes to prevent tear in the green. Participants who made 20 or fewer total putts were considered of low skill (« = 20. The experimenter recorded if the participants made the shot.

. p = .24.007. Figure 1\ Superstitious behavior as a function of skill level and task difficulty 14 . T-tests revealed no significant difference between males and females on superstitious behavior in either the easy or difficult conditions.42. F (1. All participants taken together made 78% of the putts in the easy condition and 21 % of the putts in the difficult condition.05. 4 females and 16 males). p > . (See Figure 1). j Low Skill High Skill! Easy Difficult Task Difficulty ./ 193 = 20..Spori Superstition as a Function of Skill and Difficulty. A repeated measures analysis of variance revealed an interaction between skill level and task difficulty on superstitious behavior. The low skill participants demonstrated greater superstitious behavior in the easy condition than in the difficult condition. whereas. ti = . Low skill participants made 68% of the putts in the easy condition and 14% of the putts in the difficult condition.38) = 8. High skill participants made 88% of the putts in tbe easy condition and 29% of the putts in the difficult condition. the high skill participants demonstrated greater superstitious behavior in the difficuU condition than in the easy condition.

ostensibly causing them to rely more heavily on external variables. Contrary to prediction. No. The low skill participants putting in the easy condition chose to stay with the same colored ball after a made putt significantly more often than one would expect by chance. 2005).p<. however. which would account for the greater superstitious practices in this condition. That is. by chance there was a . Also consistent with the original hypothesis. difTicult conditions for all participants combined. the high skill participants showed no superstitious behavior in the easy condition compared to the difficult condition. or ball color. The high skill participants putting in the difficult condition chose to stay with the same colored ball after a made putt significantly more often than one wouldexpect by chance.0L Discussion The aim of the current study was to parallel Gmelch's (1974) observations that baseball fielders. . who got a hit 3 out of 10 times.5l. showed less superstitious behavior than batters. x. Superstitious behavior increased as the outcome of the situation became less certain.01. chance. Because professional baseball players would presumably be labeled high skill athletes. 2 The results of the four conditions were subjected to four chi-square analyses in order to determine which conditions differed from chance and in which direction. It was further determined that the low skill participants putting in the easy condition and the high skill participants putting in the difficult condition showed superstitious behavior above what one would expect by chance. n = 20) = 9.92.fl = 20)= 12. a significant interaction was found between skill level and task difficulty on superstitious behaviors.75 probability that the participant would change balls. p < . Chi-square analyses determined that neither low skill participants putting in the difficult condition nor high skill participants putting in the easy condition were choosing colored bails significantly different from chance. The percentages of made putts for the high skill participants reflected Gmelch's (1974) baseball observations. Consistent with the hypothesis. p > . there was no significant difference between superstitious behaviors in the easy vs. Vol. who were successful 9 out of 10 times. after a median split was conducted to account for skill level.05. 31.25 probability that the participant would stay with the same colored ball and a . high skill participants struggled more with the 9' putt.194 / Journal of Sport Behavior.(1. these findings support Gmelch's (1974) observations that professional baseball players show more superstitious behavior during more difficult activities. x^(l. These findings appeared to reflect the role of the uncertainty hypothesis (Burger & Lynn. The high skill participants were likely more confident in their ability to make the putt from the short distance and did not need to reiy on luck. on any given made putt.

Rudski et al.'s experiment of random reinforcement scheduling for both point losing and gaining. Rudski. meaning that these aversive events could have contributed to a feeling of fiJtility in performing well. learned helplessness and superstition are opponent processes. while individuals experiencing learned helplessness do not believe their actions have an effect on an outcome. Rudski e t a l . 1994. Perhaps the low skill participants did not have the same confidence in their ability to make the short putt. a form of learned helplessness may have been evident with the low skill participants. and they 'give up. learned helplessness was apparent. in which repeated exposure to aversive events cause a person to realize that their actions have no effect on the outcome of an event. the low skill participants likely had little to no confidence in their ability to make the 9' putt./195 The percentages of made putts for the low skill participants did not reflect the ratio Gmelch (1974) described with professional baseball players. While points were not taken from participants in the current study. 1999). such as luck in a particular color of ball. that the low skill putters could not develop a ball color superstition because they did not have enough reinforcements to make an (illusory) correlation between ball color and made putt. It appears that in some situations of uncertainty. in that participants who were in the point losing condition recognized the fiitility of responding.Sport Superstition as a Function of Skill and Difficulty. so they essentially 'gave up. so they felt the need to rely on external sources such as ball color. indicating that the putting tasks were more challenging for these participants than for the high skill participants. Low skill participants were consistently missing the difficult putts. . brought with them variable skill levels of which they were cognizant. unlike Skinner's pigeons. 2004. however. Consequently. we suggest a slightly more cognitive explanation. Some individuals develop superstitions as a way of trying to control the uncontrollable. The feeling of uncertainty that the high skill participants may have had in the difficult condition were likely similar to the feelings of uncertainty the low skill participants felt in the easy condition. The lack of superstitious behavior in the difficult condition for the low skill participants suggests that the putting task may have been too difficult for them. produces a sense of futility for the individual to respond. and a comprehension of how reinforcement could occur.' Learned helplessness.. They established superstitious behavior in the easy condition and not in the difficult condition since the 3' putt was not as easy for the low skill participants as it was for the high skill participants. In Rudski et al. In this instance. participants who were considered of low skill showed a very difTerent effect from the high skill participants. (1999) suggested that there was a reciprocal relationship between superstition and learned helplessness. Rather than looking for some kind of external assistance. the low skill participants may have demonstrated a form of learned helplessness (Matute. Skinner (1953) might have argued that the inter-reinforcement interval was too great. Given that our participants.' .

although a survey by Van Raalte et al. 2 This study adds insight into the complex nature of superstition in sport. (1991) experimental model provided the basic methodology for the present study. none had examined this experimentally. (1982). participants providing skill information. Seven participants used the same color ball throughout the entire experiment. (1991) revealed that royal blue. Reproducing superstitious behavior in a laboratory setting is challenging because certain qualities of sport in practice cannot be fully replicated. Although researchers have speculated that superstitious behavior is a function of the level of task difficulty (Gmelch. That is. participants providing skill information after the putting task might have been motivated to lie about their skill level based on their performance during the experiment. 1974). Consistent with Anderson et al. with more self-conscious participants feeling potentially more pressure to perform. we chose to assess skill level based on performance. This present study. which quantified superstition in terms of the interaction between task difficulty and skill level. However. as opposed to those who rated themselves as low skilled. and three were from the high skill group indicating that this type of superstitious behavior was not contingent upon skill level. skill level appeared to play a role in superstitious behavior. Four of these participants were from the low skill group. Conversely. barring global generalization from these data. But unlike gender. the participants were drawn from a relatively financially homogeneous pool. no gender differences were found on superstitious behavior. it is possible that the results of the current study could have refiected methodological inadequacies. The Van Raalte et al. however. red.strong effect size indicated . This being said.196 /Journal of sport Behavior. Proper incentive to succeed may have been insufficient in the current study. Regarding the measure of superstitious behavior. For this reason. No. hot pink. was able to provide some empirical support for theorists like Gmelch. before the putting task might have felt more pressure to perform. the current study found that high skill athletes demonstrated greater superstitious behavior in difficult situations. suggesting that the incentive did not yield a nonrepresentative sample. Similarly. and chartreuse were favorite colors among college students. the number of participants (« = 40) was relatively low and representative only of college students. in turn. using these colors did not necessarily rule out the color preference variable. the moderate . (1981) and Buhrmann et al. A public display of names and rankings could have provided different levels of ego-involvement based on each individual's predisposition to that incentive. consistent with Brown and Todd's (2003) research on Division I and Division 111 track athletes. priming participants about golf skill prior to the experiment may have put unequal pressure on participants. while a priori divisions of high and low skill participants are typically considered optimal. That is to say. A $50 prize ostensibly could have attracted or deterred participants. Lastly. particularly information suggesting high skill. Vol. 31.

Athletic identity: Hercules'muscles or Achilles heel? International Journal of Sport Psychology. Brewer. (1993). This indicated that a form of learned helplessness may have come about in response to the difficulty of the 9' putt. It is the aim of sport psychologists to rid athletes of feelings of futility and instead give athletes confidence in their ability to be successftil. J. A. (1981). (1999). athletes of higher skill were more likely to demonstrate superstitious behavior in difficult tasks than in easy tasks.. Superstitions among male and female athletesof various levels of involvement. & Sheppard. and loneliness: A cross-cultural comparison of American and Chinese students.482-499.. too many superstitious practices may also inhibit performance because the athlete will not be focusing on physical and mental skill development.. With these limitations in mind. in that more superstitious behavior was performed in the easy task than the difficult task. perhaps revealing what circumstances cause the shift from superstitious practices to learned helplessness. G. Sport.sport Superstition as a Function of Skill and Difficulty./197 that the interaction between skill level and task difficulty is potentially quite important in understanding superstitious behavior in sport. requires a sense of belief and self-efficacy that one can perform well and accomplish tasks. However. the development of sport superstitions may be an indicator of hope. B. this experiment revealed important infonnation about what type of people. Low skill participants appeared to show a reverse effect. 237-254. Neil. I. According to this study. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. C. In this respect. supporting the uncertainty hypothesis and Gmelch's (1974) ideas. . B.. (1997). Anderson. 137-148. . 24. by nature. Bandura. 4. superstitious behavior may be seen. Future research should delve more deeply into the relationship between superstition and learned helplessness. W. Van Raalte. Journal of Sport Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. References Anderson. Attributional style. A. and under what situations. Development of learned helplessness in a sporting situation is likely the worst possible scenario for an athlete. suggesting a complex relationship between superstitious behavior and psychologically healthy practices. D.. E. Freeman. The feelings of futility inherent in learned helplessness essentially restrict hope of performing welt. & Linder. W.H. It may be possible that sport psychologists will be able to determine what amount of superstitious behavior may optimize an individual athlete's performance. New York: W. L. 25. depression.

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