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Photography by Bryan Edwards

Why do so many athletes wear “lucky” underwear?

Does lucky underwear actually change the outcome of a game? The research, explained.

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Perhaps no other thong has caused quite the stir since Sisqo released “Thong Song” in 2000. But when Jason Giambi, then first baseman for the New York Yankees, revealed to in 2008 that the secret to his success was a gold lamé, tiger-stripe thong he wore under his uniform, it made the front page across the New York tabloids. “JASON’S HOME RUN A BEAUTIFUL THONG,” declared the New York Daily News. “GIAMBI SINGS NEW THONG,” proclaimed the New York Post. “THONGS A LOT,” said New York Magazine.

And that was before he revealed that he even lent it to his teammates in need of some good luck on the diamond. Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada, Johnny Damon, and even captain Derek Jeter had tried it on for size — and found results. Said Jeter to the New York Daily News at the time: “I was 0-for-32 and I hit a homer on the first pitch. That’s the only time I’ve ever worn it.”

No matter how uncomfortable it is (Jeter said he wore it over his shorts, yikes), professional athletes will do anything for a win. And you’re not imagining it: Athletes really do care a lot about their briefs underneath. The stories of athletes and their lucky underwear are the fodder of media, the stuff of legends. Michael Jordan wore his lucky North Carolina shorts underneath his uniform. Detroits manager Jim Leyland refused to change his underwear during a winning game streak. And then, of course, there’s the golden thong heard ‘round the world.

So what gives about athletes and their underwear? A closer look at lucky underwear unveiled a slew of superstitions and rituals that both athletes and fans adhere to in hopes of a win. Win, lose, or drawers (pun intended), you might rethink that pair of lucky underwear once again. Here’s why lucky underwear is invaluable to your team’s success.

Superstitions provide a sense of control in unknowable circumstances.

Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist who published the paper Magic, Science, and Religion in 1948, noted the differences between the tribes living off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Some tribes fished far off the coast in dangerous conditions, while some fished in shallower, safer waters. Those who fished in the deep waters adhered to substantial fishing rituals, while those who fished in calmer waters didn’t. Why did certain tribes practice more rituals than others?

Malinowski, and researchers that followed, boiled it down to one factor: control (or should we say, lack of it). Despite best efforts to manipulate the situation, no matter how much one can practice for the best possible outcome, some situations are still left up to fate, like treacherous ocean waters — or a baseball game. Former baseball player turned anthropologist George Gmelch compared those tribesmen to his fellow hitters and fielders. While hitters made up elaborate rituals before going up to bat, inherently the riskiest act of the game, fielders tended to go light on pre-action rituals.

It should be no surprise that superstitions are more prevalent in professional sports, and closely adhered to by players. Every game, match, or fight is another act of uncertainty: Win or lose? It’s that unpredictability that causes athletes to suspend disbelief and hold on to the power of superstitions and good luck charms, like that lucky gold thong. “Seeking to command situations over which we actually have little control can lead us to believe that mysterious, unseen mechanisms are secretly at work,” wrote researchers Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky.

In his 1982 study Demystifying Sport Superstition, Graham I. Neil further broke down what makes superstition in sports ubiquitous:

The inherent lack of predictability in the outcome of sport constitutes one of its enduring appeals. ... Regardless of the degree of planning, scouting, research, and even spying on the other team’s practices, the element of chance remains central to sport. It is this strong element of chance that accounts for the abundance of magic and superstition surrounding athletics.

Neil also noted that athletes were reticent to discuss their superstitions or good luck charms because of cultural taboos, and because of the deeply “intense” personal nature of the charms. So, sadly, we may never know just how many athletes are wearing a lucky pair of briefs under their uniform. However, more evidence of athletes’ persistent belief in superstitions can be be viewed through another lens: rituals. It makes sense, as establishing best practices and movements is a ritual necessary for better performance. But take the athletes who reenact certain hand movements when they go up to bat, or before a free throw. Those rituals play a part in their game preparation because they give athletes the illusion of control in unknowable circumstances. A coping mechanism? The placebo effect? Call it what you want — but you may be curious to know how those superstitions affect performance.

Following those superstitions does in fact improve performance.

Psychologists have longed to crack exactly what about good luck charms make them, well, good luck charms. Can believing in superstitions, what most deem to be irrational thinking, actually help performance? And how?

One 2010 study conducted in Germany challenged volunteers to putt a golf ball four feet in the air; one group was given regular golf balls, the other group was given what they were told were “lucky” golf balls. In a second experiment, volunteers were challenged to complete a hand dexterity test, and one group was told “I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you” beforehand. The results were clear: Those who believed they were competing with lucky objects, or that luck was on their side, did better than those without. So the researchers challenged the group to more memory and anagram tests, and allowed half of the group to bring their own lucky charms. Again, those with their lucky charms in hand performed better. The study noted that it boiled down to confidence: Those who went into their tasks with their good luck charms felt more confident going in, which allowed them to “set higher personal goals and expectations and to persist longer at the task — all of which added up to excellent performance.”

So how does lucky underwear work? Sorry to spoil the fun, but lucky underwear — or pennies, or whatever you might consider a good luck charm — isn’t inherently magical. Psychologists agree that good luck charms work like psychological placebos to help create an illusion of control. And the added confidence boost that a lucky charm, or lucky pair of underwear, can bring is just a bonus. Said mathematician and author Joseph Mazur to the Guardian: “There is no real tangible thing we can call luck. But we create that tangible thing by transferring it to an object.”

That doesn’t mean you can’t also benefit from your own pair of lucky underwear.

Sure, athletes may make headlines in their lucky drawers, but other evidence suggests that lucky underwear or objects are beneficial even to us mere mortals. Past studies have suggested that one in three students wear “lucky exam underwear,” which makes sense: One study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people are more likely to adhere to superstitions when aiming to achieve “performance goals” rather than “learning goals.” That is, when the achievement wasn’t certain and was reliant on outside factors, participants were more drawn to a lucky pen to help them find success. The researchers credited it to the draw of added confidence.

So whether it’s time for a big interview or test, a date you’re hoping to get lucky on, or a big game, it certainly won’t hurt to pull out your lucky underwear. Don’t have a pair? There’s a way to fix that — transfer your magical thinking onto a new pair from Macy’s. You might just be grateful that you changed up your underwear drawer.

Sources are provided for informational and reference purposes only. They are not an endorsement of Advertiser or Advertiser’s products.

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