When fault lies not in stars, but in fans

The superstitious and faithful blame themselves when sports teams lose

Ideas: The Jinx

October 26, 2003|By Charles Leroux | Charles Leroux,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

There is a legendary tale in psychology circles about the woman aboard the vessel sailing the North Atlantic who, at the instant the ship struck an iceberg, was calling for room service. She survived, but all her days were tortured by the knowledge that, by making that call, she had sunk the Titanic.

In Chicago, as the proud ship of the baseball Cubs postseason play slipped beneath the waves tantalizingly short of its destination earlier this month, such guilt had many voices.

Notoriously, there was the heartbroken fan who may - or may not - have launched the disasters of the eighth inning in the sixth game against the Marlins by trying to catch a foul ball. And there was pitcher Kerry Wood claiming - despite considerable evidence to the contrary - he had choked in the final game.

But their claims of guilt were based on things they did or didn't do while at the contest. Harder to understand are those fans whose sins include:

The man who had a wisdom tooth removed and watched a Cubs victory while lying flat on his back because of the pain in his jaw. He decided to watch each subsequent game in the same position. But it gets pretty uncomfortable after a while, and for just a moment in a crucial game he moved, and ... well, the rest is tragic history.

There was the man who, in the final game, began singing, "Hey, hey, holy mackerel. No doubt about it ..." "But I started singing in the fifth inning," he later moaned. "The fifth. It was too soon!"

The woman who'd refused to watch the Cubs during the season, knowing they would break her heart. She'd tune in for a moment or two, watch her beloved team leave the bases loaded, watch a relief pitcher walk in a run, and she'd turn away. Even in postseason, she resisted temptation. But late in what would turn out to be the penultimate game, she glanced. Things were going great; leadoff batters on base, amazing pitching and fielding. "I started to care again," she said. "And the minute I cared, it happened."

Rituals gone wrong

By today, in south Florida or greater New York, similar mea culpas may be heard.

"Just like pigeons," says David Widman, assistant professor of psychology at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., says of such fans. Widman is a specialist in how animals learn and was recalling the classic experiments of B.F. Skinner in the 1940s. In one, pigeons in a box pecked at a key to release food.

"One day the key broke, but the food kept coming out intermittently anyway," Widman said. "The pigeons repeated whatever they were doing just before the food came out thinking that they were making the food appear."

An animal - or a fan - Widman said, "engaging in a behavior immediately before getting a reward will tend to repeat that behavior." And it works even if the reward doesn't happen every time.

"The example in the literature is slot machines," he said, "It's not so much getting rewarded every time you pull the handle but getting rewarded every once in a while that makes one think each time it could happen, and makes one repeat the behavior."

"It's like religion," says Dr. Ronald Kamm, president of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry. Kamm is a sport psychiatrist with a practice in Oakhurst, N.J., and the Web site, www.mindbodyandsports.com.

"Whether it's a rain dance or prayers repeated a certain number of times, people want to feel some control over things that are not in our control," Kamm said. "When the ritual doesn't work, we feel guilty. We think we did something wrong."

When asked if such behavior is exhibited beyond sports superstitions, Kamm said, "Sure, an extreme case would be obsessive-compulsive disorder."

Analyzing it

Theodore Karrison is a research associate in the Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago. As a biostatistician, he helps investigators there design and analyze health studies, and he talked about how a fan might analyze his own Cubs-related ritual.

"Say that you've made a pot of coffee a few times before games," Karrison said, "and it seems that, when you make the coffee, the Cubs win. So, you decide that making coffee ensures a win. The question is: How much data do you need to collect before any difference in the outcome after coffee vs. the outcome after no coffee is statistically significant? Is it random chance or something else?"

The answer is, it depends.

If every single time you make coffee, it's a win; and every single time you don't, it's a loss, maybe you do it a dozen times before deciding that your Mr. Coffee controls your team's fate. But if the results are mixed, you'd probably need to try 100 games with coffee and 100 without. That would take a season and a quarter. In order to rule out possible biases (such as doing the ritual only before especially difficult games so that the probability of "success" is less), Karrison suggested letting a coin flip determine whether or not you perform the ritual.

And if you decide to try making coffee to make your team win, keep in mind that watching the games is hard enough on the nerves. Especially Cubs and Red Sox games. Use decaf.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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