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How magical thinking helps us feel involved

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Magical thinking — assuming two events are related to one another when they’re actually not — is common in sports. And there’s quite a bit of magical thinking around AT&T Park. (Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)


One of my favorite memories of the Giants’ World Series run in 2010 was the dancing tugboats. My seat during the playoffs was in the upper deck, behind home plate, with an expansive view of the Bay. It was in the later innings, and the Giants were losing …

Someone in my section pointed out two tugboats outside McCovey Cove. You see every kind and size of watercraft anchored for the games, but tugboats are unusual. Then, they began to dance.

They started doing donuts, both spinning in tight circles in the same direction. Then, in different directions. Then, one began to “Moonwalk.” He moved forward a little, then slammed it into reverse for a short distance, so suddenly that water came up over the low back end of the boat. Then, forward again, into reverse. Repeated several times. For some reason, it reminded me of Michael Jackson’s smooth footwork.

Many of the people around me were also watching the tugboats. Suddenly, the roar of the crowd brought our attention back to the game. The Giants had just gone ahead, a lead they would keep to win.

The next game, the Giants were once again trailing. I found myself looking for the tugboats. They’d brought the Giants luck before, so if they came back, I was sure we’d win again.

Of course, I knew intellectually there was no way the tugboats had any actual impact on the outcome of the game. Yet, I found myself looking for something, anything — even dancing tugboats — to help my team win.

Magical thinking — assuming two events are related to one another when they’re actually not — is common in sports. Think of fans who wear the same jersey, without washing it, as long as their team continues to win. Or fans who follow the same elaborate ritual before a game. Or wear their caps inside out to help their team rally and take the lead.

And it’s not just the fans. Athletes are notoriously superstitious. Remember Aubrey Huff’s rally thong? Or how no one talks to a pitcher during a no-hitter to avoid jinxing it? Or how some pitchers avoid stepping on the third base line when walking to and from the mound?

Psychologists know that following a specific routine or wearing a lucky article of clothing boosts the self-confidence of athletes and helps them feel more in control. And then they can make the plays needed to win.

Most fans understand their individual actions don’t really make their teams win or lose. Yet we still engage in magical thinking that our actions somehow help.

It turns out that magical thinking is hardwired into the human brain. To help with our survival, our brains evolved to make snap judgments about causation. It helps us make sense of a seemingly irrational world. Something happens that we don’t understand, we see something that could have caused it, and that allows us to come up with a plan of action to deal with what happened.

In days gone by, we often got things wrong. For example, we attributed disease to “bad humors,” instead of the viruses and bacteria we now know are responsible. But thinking about “bad humors” gave us the sense that we could deal with disease. This magical thinking reduced our anxiety about illness and allowed us to get on with our lives.

We don’t need magical thinking as much today as we once did, because we understand the world better now. Indeed, magical thinking can be quite dangerous when applied to social policy. But our brains still look for that snap causation — the Giants were losing until I wore these socks, so I’ll have to keep wearing the socks so they can continue to win.

There’s nothing wrong with magical thinking in sports, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. What you do really has no impact on the game, but thinking that way can help you feel more involved and gives you the feeling that you are helping your team.

The tugboats never came back, yet the Giants won the World Series anyway. Or maybe it was because I only ate popcorn when the other team was batting …

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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