Superstition appears to arise from situations of uncertainty (Burger & Lynn, 2005; Felson & Gmelch, 1979; Vyse, 1997). Skinner (1948) was one of the first to document' superstition' as a way of describing the behaviors pigeons showed when reinforced with food on a fixed time interval. The pigeons were presented with a situation in which it was unclear why and when food reinforcement was to be given. The pigeons repeated specific behaviors that appeared to result in positive reinforcement. Skinner suggested that these behaviors were a result of the pigeons' chance actions being paired unintentionally with the reinforcement, which seemed to give the pigeon an illusion of control over the food presentation.
Superstition is wholly about the illusion of control. Humans demonstrate much of the same behavior as Skinner's (1948) pigeons (Ciborowski, 1997). When put in situations of uncertainty, individuals may try to achieve control by investing in irrelevant objects or actions, believing there to be a causal link between these objects or actions and particular results. Jahoda (1969) reported a distinction between 'causal' superstition and 'coincidental' superstition. A causal superstition was suggested to be part of a conscious belief; while a coincidental superstition was more ambiguous about what behaviors individuals believed caused a particular outcome. Ciborowski and Jahoda both suggested that superstition was an accumulation of conditioned responses which provided a foundation for a conscious belief about causality. It may also provide a foundation for the illusion of control.
It is often difficult to draw a distinction between rituals, pre-performance routines, and superstition in sport. Ritual is typically defined as a conscious activity that focuses on coping with a high-stress situation, such as taking a deep breath before shooting a free throw in basketball. Similar to rituals, pre-performance routines are specific actions and movements, such as taking practice swings before hitting a golf ball, which have been shown to effectively improve performance (Burke, Czech, & Ploszay, 2004; Cohn, 1990). Vyse (1997) made the distinction that a routine became superstition when an action gained special magical significance, such as carrying a rabbit's foot to bring good luck. Rudski (2004) defined superstition as a person's false belief that s/he can influence an outcome in a situation when realistically s/he has no control. What is paradoxical is that performing an action or carrying a lucky object as a way of controlling external factors may actually provide physical or mental relief to the point that it directly affects performance. Indeed, superstition may be seen as a psychological placebo (Neil, 1980). Ciborowski (1997) argued that if an individual believed that a particular behavior could improve performance, that behavior should not be considered superstitious.
One condition that appears to be common for all superstitious behavior is situations of uncertainty, termed the "uncertainty hypothesis" (Burger & Lynn, 2005). Vyse (1997) suggested that the basic human desire to gain control in ambiguous situations was a significant motivating factor in superstitious behavior display. Superstitious behavior may be generated by needs to establish control as well as to enhance self-efficacy. That is, attributing outcomes to controllable factors has been consistently associated with high self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997; Haney & Long, 1995), while attributing outcomes to uncontrollable factors has been consistently associated with low self-efficacy and learned helplessness (Bandura, 1997; Seligman, 1975). In situations of uncertainty, the attempt to gain control through superstitious behavior may have a positive affect on self-efficacy. In contrast, no attempt to gain control and engage in superstitious behavior may indicate very low self-efficacy and even learned helplessness.