Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Magnetic necklaces, Holographic bracelets, and Other Totems in Sports

If you have watched any of the Major League Baseball playoffs recently, you can't help but notice the twisty, braided necklaces that have become an all too popular fashion accessory for many of the players.  Or maybe you have caught a glimpse of a shiny "power balance" bracelet on your favorite, baseball, football, or basketball player.  Of course, there is absolutely no evidence that any of these things actually have any of the amazing effects they claim (enhanced balance or stamina or overall athletic performance).  But then again, pro athletes have always been a superstitious bunch.  According to an article over at

"SINCE THE BEGINNING of sport, athletes have looked outside themselves for an edge. In ancient Greece, Olympians sacrificed oxen to satisfy the gods. Roman gladiators entered the arena with their dominant foot first. Yogi Berra used the same Yankee Stadium shower during any winning streak.Michael Jordan wore UNC shorts under his Bulls uniform in every game for 13 years. And before Wade Boggs stepped to the plate, which he did more than 10,000 times in his 18-year career, he carved the Hebrew letters for the word chai ("life") into the dirt with his foot. And Boggs isn't Jewish."

Of course, as the article goes on to discuss, there may be some benefit to these superstitions, a la the placebo effect.  Basically, the placebo effect can be described as something like succumbing to the power of suggestion, or a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The idea is that if you tell a bunch of people that some experimental treatment is going to have an effect, like pain relief, then a certain number of those people are going to report feeling less pain, even if you don't give them the treatment.  As the ESPN article points out, there are some research articles out there that have looked at the placebo effect as it pertains to sports, and much like in biomedical studies, one can see that the placebo effect can yield better performance on both physical and mental performance, and may explain why many athletes believe in "lucky charms" or other superstitions.  Anyway, the article does a pretty good job of dealing with these aspects of the "magical bracelets" and other charms that seem to be so popular these days.  And apparently, a new episode of Outside the Lines will be featuring research done at the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse, that determined how effective, or rather, ineffective the "power balance" bracelets are...

PS. If you read the article over at ESPN, you will see that the author makes mention of two articles pertaining to placebo effects and superstitions on performance.  However, the articles were not referenced, so I can only assume they are the ones that I linked to above (and here): one where cyclists were told that they were getting a carbohydrate supplement, and performed better than baseline, even though they only got a placebo, and another where "lucky" totems increased participants' performance on puzzles and memory games (as well as on 1 meter golf putts).  While tracking those two down, I also found this one, which again used cyclists, and similarly showed that the placebo effect could improve performance, though the participants were told they were getting caffeine rather than carbohydrates.  And, of course, the interesting thing about this last study was that, not only was there a placebo effect, but the effect was correlated with the amount of caffeine that the participants were told they had received (i.e. telling someone they got a little bit of caffeine made them perform a little better, telling them they got a lot of caffeine made them perform a lot better, even though neither group got any caffeine).
Clark VR, Hopkins WG, Hawley JA, & Burke LM (2000). Placebo effect of carbohydrate feedings during a 40-km cycling time trial. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 32 (9), 1642-7 PMID: 10994918

Damisch L, Stoberock B, & Mussweiler T (2010). Keep your fingers crossed!: how superstition improves performance. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (7), 1014-20 PMID: 20511389

Beedie CJ, Stuart EM, Coleman DA, & Foad AJ (2006). Placebo effects of caffeine on cycling performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 38 (12), 2159-64 PMID: 17146324

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