Why Sports And Superstition Go Hand In Hand | WBEZ
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Morning Shift

Does Your Lucky Hat Matter? Why Sports And Superstition Go Hand In Hand

For some Cubs fans, wearing the same pair of socks or not shaving might be the deciding factor in Tuesday’s “do or die” World Series game against the Cleveland Indians.

The list of superstitions from sports fans is long, varied and, at times, flat out weird. But there might be a method to the madness.

That’s according to Susan Whitbourne, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies superstition and the psychology of sports fans. 

She talked to Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about what causes some sports fans to become superstitious about what it could mean. 

On Superstition As A Signal For True Fandom

“There’s a gradient between the true and fickle fan,” Whitbourne said. “For the true fan, every game is equally important. And it’s the fickle one who might just go along with the crowd.”

Whitbourne said that at a certain point, superstitions and rituals become a way to show how true a fan you are. 

“You might just always wear your shirt, always wear your hat, always wear logos that identify you as a fan, and that then just becomes part of who you are no matter what.”

But when your team loses, what do you do the day after?

“The fickle fan just throws all that stuff out,” Whitbourne said. “The true fan might actually go to the store and buy what is now half-price.”

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On Coping With Situations Beyond Our Control

Superstitions are often self-serving coping mechanism that help some people get through tough times, Whitbourne said.

“You like that feeling that you can control an outcome that is uncontrollable,” she said. “Some people like it more than others.” 

The type of people who like superstitions often like to take control, Whitbourne said, adding that people who do not like superstitions often dislike the responsibility that comes with having a stake in an important outcome.

“People do have kind of sense of humor about it. Having a sense of humor about something that is stressful is a terrific way to cope.”

On Superstitions Versus Rituals

Take note of the players as they enter the batter’s box, said Earl, a caller from Lakeview. 

“Some have these gloves on, they’re strapping them and unstrapping them a certain number of times. They themselves have superstitious behavior.”

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But Whitbourne said that these player rituals are a bit different than fan superstitions.

“I think it’s different when you actually have control over the outcome,” Whitbourne said. “What makes it a superstition is it really doesn’t have an effect.” 

But if a certain behavior helps a player feel better about their game plan, then it could actually be beneficial, she said. 

“At that point, it’s mental,” Whitbourne said.

Some Of Chicagoans’ Best Superstitions

“One of the games, I had [my husband] fold cloth diapers for the baby, and they won. So every game on from then, he wanted to fold diapers,” said caller Sanyan from Lincoln Square. 

“I have developed this habit of never referring to the team directly by name. That spread to never using the players’ actual names, e.g., Heywood for the RF, Wizzo for the 1B… It’s cousin to the idea of not saying ‘no-hitter’ during a no-no,” wrote a listener named Benjamin. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the entire segment. 

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