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

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

If sharpening your pencils helps you write, why not? Photograph: Getty Images

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.