One of the most fascinating books I’ve read recently is called Kidding Ourselves by Joseph Hallinan. The book is basically a long litany of studies showing that people did just as well with a placebo or a fake treatment as they did with real drugs or treatments. What made the difference time and again was whether or not the person believed the drug or treatment would work.
Hallinan concludes his book with the following words:
“It doesn’t really matter what you believe in. It can be a pill or a prophet, a scalpel or a syringe or even a lucky rabbit’s foot. They all work. As Woody Allen once observed, ‘There’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful.'”
Earlier in the book Hallinan writes:
“To say that its’ all a placebo might be an exaggeration, but not much of one. As we’ve seen time and time again, placebos work…but only if you believe they do. In one study of ultrasound waves used to relieve pain after the extraction of wisdom teeth, patients got equally good pain relief whether the machine was turned on or off – so long as both patient and physician believed that it was turned on. Belief is like that: it has to be turned on. As we’ve seen in numerous studies, patients who stick to their treatment, even when that treatment is a sham, have better health outcomes than patients who don’t. That’s because sticking with something helps. It doesn’t matter whether it’s going to church every Sunday or taking your pills every Monday: stick-to-it-ness has benefits. It helps lead to optimism, which leads to perseverance, which leads to success – not always, of course, but often enough.” (p. 208)
When heading into a presentation, most people take a few essentials with them: a pen, a notepad, handouts, and perhaps some PowerPoint slides illustrating a proposal. But what about a rabbit’s foot? A horseshoe? A wishbone?
Those who bring some kind of good luck charm with them into the boardroom are not alone. According to a study by Carey Morewedge, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and Eric Hamerman of Tulane University, reliance on superstition spikes when the stakes are high and a person wants to impress. For the study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Morewedge and Hamerman created six situations and called on more than 600 participants. Some participants were asked to answer trivia questions, others played a card game, and another group took a quiz. Across the different situations, they were offered supposed lucky charms or studied for any superstitious behavior.
The study found that people turn to their chosen charms in performance tasks that require the approval of others—using a lucky pen to ace a test—but not during tasks in which they are attempting to gain knowledge.
The researchers surmised that superstition gave people a sense of confidence or certainty as they went into performance tasks. During a presentation, they can’t predict how their audience will react or if a projector will malfunction. In these situations, when people feel they don’t have control of their surroundings, they tend to lean on luck.
So, if it’s a special pair of shorts that gives you confidence when giving a presentation—go ahead, wear them. Under your dress pants, of course.
This idea that all forms of belief are equally valid obviously interests someone like me who preaches about faith in God on a regular basis. I don’t think it is a topic that has easy answers. I don’t find it helpful when some say, “Just believe and it will be okay”. Or when others say, “We’d all be better off if everyone would just get rid of all their silly superstitions.”