In this passage, the writer explores how superstition can both help and hinder us.
Tennis players are a funny bunch. Have you noticed how they always ask for three balls
instead of two; how they bounce the ball the same number of times before serving, as if
any deviation from their routine might bring the world collapsing on their heads?
But the superstitions and rituals so beloved by the world’s top players are not confined
to the court. They take even more bizarre twists when the poor dears get home after
their matches. Goran Ivanisevic got it into his head that if he won a match he had to
repeat everything he did the previous day, such as eating the same food at the same
restaurant, talking to the same people and watching the same TV programmes. One
year this meant that he had to watch Teletubbies every morning during his Wimbledon
campaign. “Sometimes it got very boring,” he said.
Could it be that these multifarious superstitions tell us something of deeper importance
not only about humanity but about other species on the planet?
The answer, I think, is to be found in the world of pigeons. Yes, really. These feathered
fellows, you see, are the tennis players of the bird world. Don’t take my word for it:
that was the opinion of B. F. Skinner, the man widely regarded as the father of modern
Skinner’s view was based on a groundbreaking experiment that he carried out in 1947
in which he placed some hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism
that delivered food “at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s
behaviour”. He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with
whatever chance actions they happened to be performing at the moment it was first
delivered. So what did the pigeons do? They kept performing the same actions, even
though they had no effect whatsoever on the release of food.
I know, I know. This is nothing compared with the weird behaviour that goes on
at Wimbledon, but do you see the connection? The pigeons were acting as if they
could influence the mechanism delivering the Trill in just the same way that Ivanisevic
thought that he could influence the outcome of his next match by watching Teletubbies.
To put it a tad formally, they both witnessed a random connection between a particular
kind of behaviour and a desired outcome, and then (wrongly) inferred that one caused
But did Ivanisevic really believe that his superstitions were effective or was he just
having us on? Well, let’s hear from the man himself – this is what he said when asked
if he had ever abandoned a ritual when it stopped working: “I didn’t. They do work.
I won Wimbledon.” So, he really did believe. And what of the pigeons? They were,
unfortunately, unavailable for interview.
Superstitious behaviour emerged quite early in evolutionary history. What is certain
is that it is widespread, particularly within
. More than half of Americans
admitted to being superstitious in a recent poll, and it is not just silly and gullible types
either. At Harvard University, students frequently rub the foot of the statue of John
Harvard for good luck.
Even cricketers, perhaps the brightest and most sensible sportsmen of all (well, that’s
what they tell us), are not immune to superstition. Jack Russell, the former England
wicketkeeper, was among the most notorious, refusing to change his hat or wicketkeeping
pads throughout his career, even though they became threadbare and smelly, something
that really got up the noses of his team-mates.
But this raises another, deeper question: why do so many of us maintain rituals of
various kinds when they have no real connection with the desired outcome? Or, to put it
another way, why is superstitious behaviour so widespread, not just within our species
but beyond, when it seems to confer no tangible benefits? It’s here that things get really
interesting (and just a little complex). And, as with most interesting things, the answer
is to be found in deep evolutionary history.
Imagine a caveman going to pick some berries from some bushes near his rocky abode.
He hears some rustling in the bushes and wrongly infers that there is a lion lurking in
there and scarpers. He even gets a little superstitious about those bushes and gives them
a wide berth in future. Is this superstition a problem to our caveman? Well, not if there
are plenty of other berry-bearing bushes from which to get his five-a-day.
But suppose that there really is a lion living in those bushes. The caveman’s behaviour
now looks not only sensible but life-saving. So, a tendency to perceive connections that
do not actually exist can confer huge evolutionary benefits, providing a cocoon of safety
in a turbulent and dangerous world. The only proviso (according to some devilishly
complicated mathematics known as game theory) is this: your superstitions must not
impose too much of a burden on those occasions when they are without foundation.
And this is almost precisely what superstitions look like in the modern world. Some
believe in horoscopes, but few allow them to dictate their behaviour; some like to wear
the same lucky shoes to every job interview, but it is not as if wearing a different pair
would improve their chances of success; some like to bounce the ball precisely seven
times before serving at tennis, but although they are wrong to suppose that this ball-
bouncing is implicated in their success, it does not harm their prospects (even if it
irritates those of us watching).
It is only when a superstition begins to compromise our deeper goals and aspirations
that we have moved along the spectrum of irrationality far enough to risk a diagnosis of
obsessive compulsive disorder. Take Kolo Touré, the former Arsenal defender, who
insists on being the last player to leave the dressing room after the half-time break. No
real problem, you might think, except that when William Gallas, his team-mate, was
injured and needed treatment at half-time during a match, Touré stayed in the dressing
room until Gallas had been treated, forcing Arsenal to start the second half with only
When a superstition that is supposed to help you actually hinders you, it is probably
time to kick the ritual into touch. With a rabbit’s foot, obviously.
Matthew Syed, in
Look at lines 1–3, and then explain
in your own words
what is meant by
tennis players being “a funny bunch”.
Consider the first two sentences of the second paragraph (lines 4–6), and
then show how any example of the writer’s
here reveals what
his attitude to “top players” is.
Explain why the paragraph in lines 11 and 12 works well at this point as a
link of the ideas in the passage.
in your own words
why the writer can feel confident about using
B. F. Skinner (see line 15) to support his claims about pigeons.
Explain how effective you find the writer’s use of the
“groundbreaking” (line 17) to refer to Skinner’s experiment.
Look at lines 24–30, and then explain fully and
in your own words
“the connection” was.
What is the effect of the inclusion of the sentence “They were, unfortunately,
unavailable for interview” (lines 34–35)?
Why does the writer include the reference to Harvard University (line 39)?
Explain the humour of “something that really got up the noses of his
team-mates” (lines 44–45).
Look again at lines 52–56.
How do these lines relate to the ideas the writer presents in the previous
What is surprising about the expression “to get his five-a-day”
in your own words
what the “huge evolutionary benefits” (line 59)
of superstitions are.
Explain the writer’s use of a colon in line 61.
Look again at lines 63–69, in which the writer examines the nature of
in your own words
the points the writer makes.
How does the
reinforce the ideas the writer is
Explain how effective you find the word “spectrum” (line 71) as an
to illustrate people’s “irrationality”.
Why does the writer include the anecdote about the footballer Kolo Touré
How effective do you find any aspect of the final paragraph (lines 78–79) as a
conclusion to the passage?
Your answer might deal with such features as
Article is adapted from “Very superstitious: the obsessive, compulsive side of sport”, by
Matthew Syed, taken from The Times, 1 July 2009. © The Times, July 2009.
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