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The Power of Lucky Charms: New Research Suggests How They Really Make Us Perform Better

Is this just like a big placebo?


Can luck really influence the outcome of events? That question has captivated otherwise rational people for centuries—and challenged scientists to somehow prove whether lucky charms, special shirts or ritualistic behaviors hold special powers.

They do. (Sometimes.) New research coming out in June suggests that a belief in good luck can affect performance.

In a test conducted by researchers from the University of Cologne, participants on a putting green who were told they were playing with a “lucky ball” sank 6.4 putts out of 10, nearly two more putts, on average, than those who weren’t told the ball was lucky. That a 35% improvement. The results suggest new thinking in how to view luck and are intriguing to behavorial psychologists.

Our results suggest that the activation of a superstition can indeed yield performance-improving effects,” says Lysann Damisch, co-author of the Cologne study, set to be published in the journal Psychological Science. The sample size, just 28 university students, was small, but the effect was big enough to be statistically significant.


Mathematicians have demonstrated the role that randomness plays in life—”there are no long-term successful craps players,” says Harvey Mudd College mathematician Arthur Benjamin.

But don’t tell that to the people who believe they can shape their own luck. They’re well represented in games of chance, such as lotteries and casinos, and will be out in force at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, in which a favorite is named, what else, Lookin At Lucky.

On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, N.Y., Dennis Canetty was wearing a brown suit. Not an everyday, run-of-the-mill, ordinary brown suit. The retired Wall Street trader, age 61, was sporting his lucky brown suit to help the horse he co-owns, Always a Party, win the second race. The power of the suit is real and proven: Mr. Canetty was wearing it at the Preakness Stakes two years ago when Macho Again, another horse he co-owns, finished second as a 40-to-1 long shot.

“It’s silly,” he said a few minutes before race time. “My wife thinks I’m nuts.”

Even some otherwise calculating mathematicians hold irrational beliefs about luck. “I tell my class, ‘Don’t bother entering sweepstakes; it’s so unlikely you’re going to win,’ ” says Joseph Mazur, a mathematician at Marlboro College and author of the book “What’s Luck Got to Do with It?” coming out in July. But then his wife entered him in a sweepstakes and he won $20,000.

“There I was for months afterwards, entering every sweepstakes contest I could find,” he says. It was futile—he never repeated.

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