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If superstitions help you get in the zone then keep sharpening those pencils

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

A hundred and twenty-one not out overnight, the England batsman Jonathan Trott must have been feeling pretty good about life. There was, however, no room for complacency. When he resumed his innings on the second day of the second Test match in Wellington, New Zealand, Trott went through his full, elaborate series of pre-innings rituals and superstitions. He raked the batting crease with his studs, dragged his bat along the same groove, then raked, then dragged, then raked, then dragged. He then adjusted all the Velcro straps on his batting pads – detaching then attaching, detaching then attaching. Everything was set fair.

Trott then promptly edged his first ball of the day’s play and was caught behind. A colleague in the commentary box was furious. “All that nonsense and then he’s out first ball – surely final proof that it doesn’t work and we won’t see it again!” So who is the more rational man: my commentator colleague or Jonathan Trott?

Trott is certainly in good company. Superstition afflicts – or sustains – many athletes. The unfailingly courteous Rafael Nadal was due to meet the Queen during the 2010 Wimbledon Championships. Nadal had to cancel because he hadn’t met the Queen the day before (when he had won his match). He couldn’t countenance changing a winning pattern. Forced to choose between the Queen and routine, superstition won in straight sets.

Before each innings, the South African batsman Neil McKenzie used adhesive tape to attach his spare cricket bats to the ceiling of the dressing room. He also insisted that the toilet seats were down in the changing room before going out to bat. A crazed madman? No, he is a thoughtful and balanced man.

Trott can even invoke the example of Barack Obama. During his 2008 campaign against Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination, Obama played an afternoon game of basketball on the day of each primary. Only twice did he skip afternoon basketball. He lost both primaries. Ever since, he hasn’t missed a game on the day of a big vote, even finding time for some hoops on election day last November.

The prospect of performance brings superstition to the surface. After an improved showing in the second debate against Mitt Romney, Obama asked for the same pre-debate menu (steak and potatoes) before the third debate. During the 2008 campaign, Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod carried a pink quartz heart in his pocket to bring good luck.

Hedge-fund managers argue that they have found rational ways to beat the market while still clinging to lucky charms. In 1987, the investor Paul Tudor Jones allowed PBS to make Trader, a documentary about his methods. Before one trade, Jones laces up a special pair of trainers, explaining to the camera: “These tennis shoes are what the future of this country hangs on because they’ve been good for a point rally in bonds and a 30-point rally in stocks every time I put them on . . . I bought them at a charity auction. They’re Bruce Willis’s, the man’s a stud.” Jones was not proud of his superstitious confessions in Trader. He has tried to buy every VHS copy ever produced and still fights to have all clips removed from internet sites.

What is going on here, how can these apparent contradictions be reconciled? Obama’s strategists have taken electoral science to new levels of accuracy. In the history of elections, no campaign has pursued votes with more money or statistical rigour, and yet they cannot shake quartz hearts and basketball rituals.

The psychologist B F Skinner placed some hungry pigeons in a cage and fed them at random intervals. The pigeons linked the first arrival of food with the actions they were performing at the time. To the pigeons, this “link” remained fixed, even though it failed to influence the arrival of food in the future. So Skinner noted that one bird “repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage”, while another “developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly”. On one level, superstitious humans are stooping to the same level as Skinner’s pigeons. An action is (initially) followed by a desired outcome. Then follows the logical jump that the action had caused the outcome, when in fact there was no causal relationship at all.

When it comes to differentiating between randomness and causality, surely we ought to do better than a bunch of pigeons? And yet I’ve been superstitious all my life. My preball routine in the batting crease was almost as contorted as Trott’s. After the third ball of every six-ball over, I would ask the umpire how many balls were left in the over. I usually knew the answer but I asked anyway. I batted for as many as 15,000 overs in my career, so I must have asked the umpire whether there were three balls left about 15,000 times.

I used to blame my superstitions on abject irrationality. I wanted to be cured. One season I tried to go cold turkey. But after a few failures, I fell off the wagon; it was back to asking, “Three more?”

Now I am not so critical. The line between routine and superstition is very blurred. Routine is an essential part of getting into the zone. My father is a writer. His day begins with the ritual sharpening of a dozen 3B pencils; he refuses to write with anything else. The pencil sharpening, I expect, is one of the ways he signals to himself that he is entering a different psychological zone. That is what Trott is doing, too. And it works, at least often enough for him to be one of the best batsmen around. Apparent irrationality can be surprisingly rational.

Be careful before you examine too carefully the foundations of your confidence. Self-belief relies on an array of misappraisals of the causes of your own success.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.