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This article is adapted from Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed by Daniel McGinn, to be published on June 6, 2017 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel McGinn.
Chad Knaus insists he’s not superstitious. He attributes his success as the crew chief for seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson to a single factor: his work ethic. He routinely logs 12 hour days, managing the 100-person group of mechanics and pit crew, watching video and looking for an edge.
But, on Thursday afternoons, Knaus routinely engages in an odd moment of menial work. Before boarding the private jet that carries him to races, Knaus carefully trims leaves from the bonsai tree near his office, then carries the dead foliage outside, returning it to the earth. Next he waters the plant. “I give it a little love and affection,” he says. It’s a pre-race ritual he never skips — because if he did, there might be consequences.
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Like all superstitions, Knaus’s bonsai ritual has an origin story. He received his first bonsai tree as a gift during the 2005 NASCAR season. Late that year, with Johnson in the chase for first place, Knaus became so preoccupied that he forgot to water his plant. It died. Around the same time, Johnson finished poorly in a race, knocking him out of contention.
Logically, there is no connection between the bonsai’s death and Johnson’s loss. But, in Knaus’s mind, they became what social scientists call “contiguous events.” So, when Knaus’s assistant bought him a new bonsai, he became obsessive about helping it thrive.
In the years since Knaus became a superstitious arborist, Johnson has won a record seven Nascar championships. As the tagline of a 2012 series of Bud Light ads set to the Stevie Wonder song "Superstition" put it: “It isn’t weird if it works.”
Many workplaces have their own brands of superstitions and rituals. Walmart associates begin each workday with a company cheer. Yelp salespeople bang a gong when they close a sale, and rush the kitchen to chug energy drinks at 2 p.m. some afternoons, a practice they call “power hour.”
Social scientists divide habitual behaviors like this into several categories. Some are pre-performance routines, or a systematic series of task-related steps before important moments. A boxer who has tape applied to his fists or a salesperson who shines his shoes and organizes contracts before a crucial sales call are engaged in a pre-performance routine, since their actions are directly related to the job they’re doing.
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Sports psychologists have studied activities as varied as rugby, diving, darts and water polo and found that having a pre-performance routine helps people perform better. They aren’t sure exactly why, but they suspect the routines help focus attention, distract and reduce anxiety, and trigger people to remember the actions they’ve practiced.
Rituals expand beyond task-related actions to include activities with no clear connection to the coming performance. It makes sense for LeBron James to apply chalk to his hands before playing basketball, but the elaborate ways he throws chalk dust into the air before tip-off makes it a ritual.
Superstitions go beyond ritual. These actions take on a magical significance, and people often have a nonsensical belief in their efficacy or concern for the consequences if they fail to hew to the superstitious routine.
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Despite the lack of deep understanding, research shows rituals and superstitions behaviors do tend to work, perhaps because people believe they do, in a sort of placebo effect.
And while individual rituals like Knaus’s bonsai care can boost performance, research by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton has shown that rituals performed in a group setting can have even more effect by bringing a team together and giving them a sense of shared purpose.
Knaus and his race team has some of those, too. Each February, before loading racecars into trailers for the season-opening Daytona 500, everyone (including Knaus) meets to hand-wax the cars. To put this in perspective, Knaus lives in a multi-million dollar home and spends his workday in meetings and on email; he hasn’t hoisted a wrench in years. So, waxing cars is way below his pay grade, but the waxing ritual is an important moment of team bonding, illustrating how everyone in the group is caring for the cars they depend on for their livelihood.
The rituals don’t end when the race does. When Johnson or one of the other three drivers from Hendrick Motorsports win a race, the following morning a wheeled replica of the Liberty Bell is pushed around the company’s campus. Each employee takes a turn ringing it to celebrate the victory.
Johnson, the team’s star driver, doesn’t overthink his team’s lucky rituals. “We like to joke that we’re not sure we’re superstitious, but we like to cover our bases just in case,” Johnson says. For instance, Johnson looks for heads-up pennies on the ground, which he likes to glue to the dashboard of his racecar.
“At different times in my career I have felt that superstitions may have helped,” Johnson says. “It’s all just a mindset. The power of our minds and brains is massive, and modern medicine is just starting to recognize the effects of positive attitude.”
It’s not weird if it works.