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Psychologists’ Golf Trick Shows Superstition Boosts Performance

By Helen Fields

How can you make people better at sports? Tell them they’re using equipment that previously belonged to a professional athlete. No, really. A new study finds that golfers significantly improved their putting ability when they believed the putter they were using belonged to a celebrity golfer.

The research was inspired by a passage in the 1953 book Zen in the Art of Archery, where author Eugen Herrigel describes shooting badly, handing his bow to his teacher for a few shots, then getting it back and shooting better: “It was as if the bow let itself be drawn differently, more willingly, more understandingly.” Undergraduate Charles Lee of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (UVA) thought this sounded like an interesting psychological phenomenon. “Charles brought it to me and we said, ‘Okay, well, why don’t we do this same thing but using a golf paradigm and actually quantify it?” says Sally Linkenauger, then a Ph.D. student at UVA and now a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany.

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