Maria De Paola and her colleagues explored this question in a field study with over 700 Italian students.
Sixty-one of the students took an exam in a seat numbered 17, which is widely considered unlucky in Italian culture (for example, cinemas and theatres avoid having a 17th row for this reason). One hundred and eight students took an exam in a lucky seat, numbered either 13 or 30 (again, in Italian culture these numbers are considered good omens). The remainder of the students sat in seats with neutral numbers. To reinforce the influence of the seat numbers they were also printed on the exam papers. After the exam was over, the students were asked how well they thought they'd done in the exam, and how well they thought their peers would have done.
Overall, the students were overconfident. When the researchers later looked up their actual exam results, the students thought they'd performed better than they had. For men, but not women, this overconfidence was exaggerated by sitting in a lucky seat – men in such a position showed an even more inflated belief in their ability than their peers in neutral seats.
By contrast, the women, but not men, were affected by sitting in an unlucky seat – they didn't show as much overconfidence as their peers.
For both men and women, their actual exam performance was unaffected by where they sat.
The researchers said the gender difference in how superstition affected men's and women's expectations fits with prior research that's suggested women are more fearful than men of potentially negative outcomes, and more prone to pessimism. To help correct these biases, De Paola and her team said that "one should try to have women focus upon benefits and men upon costs. This would help give the right weight to both positive and negative aspects and improve their decision making processes."
De Paola, M., Gioia, F., & Scoppa, V. (2014). Overconfidence, omens and gender heterogeneity: Results from a field experiment Journal of Economic Psychology, 45, 237-252 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2014.10.005
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.