When Usain Bolt or Serena Williams step out for their latest race or match, the world waits with bated breath. As some of the best athletes in the world, their unbelievable winning streaks have been met by almost universal acclaim — and plenty of people hoping that streak isn’t broken.
But according to Jesse Walker from Ohio State University and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University, that investment and goodwill just isn’t the same when it comes to teams: we’re far less impressed by consecutive wins by groups of people than those by individuals. They call this phenomenon the “Streaking Star Effect” in their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Starting a new habit isn’t always easy — we probably only have to look at our own history of failed New Year’s Resolutions to know that. One common frustration is that things don’t happen fast enough — we start doing something that’s supposedly good for us but don’t see a significant behaviour change as quickly as we’d hoped.
That certainly seems to be the case with exercise, at least according to a new study in Frontiers in Psychology. It found that people only feel they’ve become more active when they increase the amount of vigorous activity they do — if it’s moderate, they don’t feel like they’ve changed at all.
Keeping to goals or new habits is not easy — so much so that there’s a cottage industry of life coaches, motivational speakers and stationery companies offering you tricks, hints, motivational journals and other products apparently designed to keep you on the straight and narrow.
But there might be an easier — and considerably cheaper — way of doing things. Rather than trying to motivate ourselves alone, Katie S. Mehr and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania argue in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, copying the strategies that our friends use may provide us with some much needed drive.
For many, running a marathon is seen as the ultimate amateur athletic achievement; for others, it’s just the start. Ultramarathon runners often take on courses of incredibly impressive length, running 50 or 100 kilometres at one time or over several days.
Clearly this is physically demanding, and only those in seriously good shape will be able to take on such challenges — ultramarathon running involves stress on muscles and bones, blisters, dehydration, sleep deprivation and mental and physical fatigue, so it’s really not for the faint of heart.
When a gym recently opened up near my house, I was determined to go regularly and make the most of the facilities. And I did — for about a month. But gradually, my visits became fewer and further between, until I realised I was paying for a bunch of machines and slabs of metal that I hadn’t touched in weeks. Guiltily, I cancelled my membership.
But perhaps I have my personality to blame. A new study tracking gym users has honed in one key factor that is related to how often they visit: their “planfulness”. This aspect of our personality, say the researchers, could be “uniquely useful” for predicting a range of goal-directed behaviours.
This is Episode 17 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
Can psychology help make running more enjoyable? Our presenter Christian Jarrett speaks to several experts about various strategies including “cognitive reappraisal” and the benefits of taking part in organised runs. He also hears how some of us are genetically disposed to find running less enjoyable than others, and why that isn’t an excuse for giving up.
Our guests, in order of appearance, are: Dr Grace Giles (US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, Natick), Dr John Nezlek (SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Faculty in Poznan and College of William & Mary, Williamsburg VA), Dr Marzena Cypryańska (SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw), and Professor Eco de Geus (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam).
Episode credits: Presented and produced by Christian Jarrett. Mixing and editing Jeff Knowler. PsychCrunch theme music Catherine Loveday and Jeff Knowler. Art work Tim Grimshaw.
Minds run free (Psychologists, like much of the population, have been bitten by the running bug. What do they get out of it, and does their experience chime with the science? Christian Jarrett and Ella Rhodes investigate.)
To win a medal of any kind at the Olympic Games takes years of training, hard work and sacrifice. Standing on an Olympic podium is widely regarded as the pinnacle of an athlete’s career. Nonetheless, only one athlete can win gold, leaving the two runner-up medallists to ponder what might have been. Intriguingly a seminal study from the 1992 Olympic Games suggested that this counterfactual thinking was especially painful for silver medallists, who appeared visibly less happy than bronze medallists. The researchers speculated that this may have been because of the different counterfactual thinking they engaged in, with bronze medallists being happy that they didn’t come fourth while silver medallists felt sad that they didn’t win gold.
However, subsequent research based on the 2000 Olympic Games did not replicate this finding: this time silver medallists were found to be happier than bronze medallists. To further muddy the waters, a study from the 2004 Games was consistent with the seminal research, finding that straight after competition, gold and bronze medallists were more likely to smile than silver medallists, with these smiles being larger and more intense.
Now further insight into the psychology of coming second or third comes via Mark Allen, Sarah Knipler and Amy Chan of the University of Wollongong, who have released their findings based on the 2016 Olympic Games. These latest results, published in Journal of Sports Sciences, again challenge that initial eye-grabbing result that suggested bronze medallists are happier than silver medallists, but they support the idea that the nature of counterfactual thinking differs depending on whether athletes come second or third.
In contact sports like boxing and rugby you can use your pre-match nerves to fuel your determination, speed and aggression. In contrast, in a sport like table tennis that involves fine motor control, nerves can also stifle your performance, making you stiff and clumsy. It seems obvious that learning to control your emotions prior to games should therefore be important to table tennis players (and competitors in other sports that require precision). Yet, surprisingly, as the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Personality point out, “to date, only a few studies have investigated the relation between emotional regulation and … sport performance”.
To find out more, Jeanette Kubiak and her colleagues, at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, surveyed hundreds of league table tennis players in Germany about the ways they controlled their emotions prior to matches, and then compared these results against objective measures of the participants’ league performance. The research uncovered several emotional control strategies used more often by better and improving players. “Taken together, the findings provide evidence for the importance of emotion regulation regarding sport performance,” the researchers said.
Say you’re planning to run a marathon, and you have a target time in mind. Or you’re on a weight- loss diet, and your aim is to lose six kilos in six weeks. Or, there’s an exam coming up, and you want to score above 75 per cent. These are all individual goal pursuits. In theory, you’re not in direct competition with anybody else, though of course if you’re part of a running club, or a weight loss group, or an undergraduate class, you will be aware that others around you are striving to achieve their own goals.
There’s plenty of evidence that sharing your own goals and hearing about other people’s can be helpful – in providing mutual encouragement, emotional support and motivation. However, a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows how, in certain circumstances, we can’t help ourselves from competing with others – an effect that can be surprisingly counterproductive.The findings suggest that when we’re paired with an individual striving for a similar goal and who is similarly able, we begin to view this other person as an opponent – leading us to sabotage their efforts, ultimately to the detriment of our own performance.
“Pursuing individual goals together with others can at times lead to counter-productive behaviours that not only harm others but also harm oneself,” report Szu-chi Huang at Stanford University, and her colleagues.
Choking is a ubiquitous and extremely frustrating human weakness – as the stakes are raised, our performance usually improves, but only up to a point, beyond which the pressure gets too much and our skills suddenly deteriorate. Any new psychological tricks to ameliorate this problem will be welcomed by sports competitors, students and anyone else who needs to be at their best under high pressure situations.
A fascinating paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience documents a new technique for reducing choking that has to do with altering how you look at what is at stake. Moreover, the research shows how this act of reappraisal is reflected in altered activity in a key brain area that’s previously been implicated in how well we can maintain our fine motor control under pressure.