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October 18, 2022

The successes of the Eagles and Phillies have fans putting their superstitions on full display – and that's OK

Game day rituals help people feel like they can influence the outcome. It's mostly harmless fun, psychologists say

The green, heart-shaped sunglasses started as a joke.

When Marissa Custren, a lifelong Eagles fan, slid her shades on, the Birds had fallen behind the Detroit Lions early in their season opener. Their defense looked "awful." So, she pulled out the sunglasses and "almost sarcastically" put them on, assuring her friends that the souvenir she had gotten at a Harry Styles concert would turn the game around.

"And I'm pretty convinced they did," she said.

The Eagles won the game 38-35, and Custren has worn her sunglasses during every game since — whether she's been outside, inside bars for night games or at Universal Studios in Orlando, where she happened to be when the Eagles faced the Jaguars in Week 4. They won 29-21.

"They are with me in my purse at all times," Custren said. "It feels like a direct responsibility."

Considering the recent success of Philadelphia's sports teams, it's hard not to be superstitious. The Eagles defeated the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday to maintain a pristine 6-0 record. The Flyers bested the Canucks on Saturday, putting them at 2-0 for the season. And that's on top of the Phillies' playoff victory against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday, which landed them in the National League Championship Series – an outcome few fans thought possible just weeks ago. 

But at the end of the day, it's the players, not a pair of sunglasses, that send Philadelphia's teams to victory. Even Custren mocks her own "very sane" rituals. So why do fans wear the same outfits, eat the same snacks or seal themselves in their bathrooms on game day, steadfastly sticking to whatever behavior they've linked to the last win?

According to psychologists, it's a form of anxiety.

"I think it's because they are so anxious about the game or the team they're rooting for, that they try in some way or another to assuage the anxiety by engaging in behavior that they hope will control the outcome," Dr. Pietro Miazzo, a professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Temple University and medical director of inpatient psychiatry at Temple University Hospital, told PhillyVoice. "They engage in some kind of magical thinking."

Researchers have likened this behavior to the so-called gambler's fallacy, wherein bettors mistakenly form connections between the past and future outcomes of random events. Landing the same roulette square twice in a row doesn't mean it will happen a third time, for instance, but gamblers, just like sports fans, tend to believe there's a playbook to a game that's just pure chance.

Anxiously grasping for control can read as a concerning behavior, but it's often just a fun way for fans to participate in a game, explained Dr. Joel Fish, a licensed psychologist and director of the Center for Sports Psychology.

Eagles sunglasses superstitionCourtesy/Marissa Custren

Eagles fan Marissa Custren has worn her heart-shaped green sunglasses for every football game in the 2022 season. She has superstition that it helps them win.

"Sports, like in life, you can't script it. But one of the things we can control as fans is what we wear, when we eat, where we sit, who we watch the game (with)," he told PhillyVoice. "It helps us as fans sort of feel like we're doing our part. And it also helps us as fans mentally prepare for the competition."

The athletes who actually influence the outcome of the game aren't immune to this behavior, either. Professional athletes are a notoriously superstitious bunch, engaging in highly specific rituals before or during the games to set themselves up for success. It's why Serena Williams wears the same pair of socks through a tournament run, or former Jaguars defensive tackle John Henderson made a staffer slap him before each game.

"Athletes tend to be creatures of habit," Fish said. "It helps mental preparation to have a routine or some structure ... (But) especially now, there's so much out there an athlete can't control, from the social media to the media, to the weather conditions, to the referee's call. So athletes also really try to double down on certain routines."

According to both Miazzo and Fish, there's no one type of person more susceptible to superstition and ritual. People who believe in karma may insist on engaging in ritual for the good of a team, while pragmatists might naturally reject these behaviors. But superstition is more common than people realize. 

While a 2014 YouGov poll found that only 13% of people considered themselves to be superstitious, 35% believed that picking up a penny was good luck, and 28% believed that breaking a mirror was bad luck. A quarter of respondents believed you could jinx something just by talking about it.

As long as the superstitious behavior does not significantly impact a person's life or relationships, Fish said, it's all harmless fun — which is good news for fans like Custren, who have no plans of stopping. 

"If I didn't wear (the sunglasses) I would certainly be damning the team," she said. "It's mandatory."

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