“Win one for the Gipper” used to be the gold standard in sports motivation, but researchers at the University of Arizona may have come up with a better one:
“Oh my god, I’m going to die!”
Yep, fear of mortality appears to be a quick route to better performance — and higher scoring — at least when it comes to basketball.
Colin Zestcott and Uri Lifshin, doctoral students in psychology at the University of Arizona, devised two clever experiments in a test of athletic response to the subconscious fear of dying. Their intent was to see how terror management — the ability of self-esteem to offer a buffer against death anxiety — plays out during, well, athletic play.
“The theory of terror management taps into how existential concerns motivate people,” said Zestcott. “When people are worried about their mortality they want to maintain self-esteem and grab on to anything that makes them feel like they’ll live on … like writing the great American novel.”
Or, at least in the short run, like shining on the basketball court.
For the first study, 31 male undergraduates who liked basketball and valued being good at it were recruited for what they were told was a personality and sports study. The subjects were asked to play two games of one-on-one basketball against a person they thought was another subject but who was actually one of the researchers.
In between the two games, the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire. Half of the subjects were randomly assigned questions that probed them to think about a neutral topic (playing basketball); the other half were prompted to think about their mortality with questions such as, “Please briefly describe the thoughts and emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “…what do you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you’re physically dead?” The questions were followed by several incidental tasks to allow the thoughts to trickle out of the subjects’ conscious minds before they played the second game.
The researchers hypothesized that according to terror management theory, those who answered the mortality questions should show an improvement in their second game. When the results of the experiment, which was videotaped, were analyzed, the researchers found out the subjects’ responses exceeded their expectations: The performance in the second game for those who had received a memento mori increased 40 percent, while the other group’s performance was unchanged.
“What we were surprised at was the magnitude of the effect, the size in which we saw the increases from baseline,” said Zestscott.
In a second, subtler experiment, participants took part in a timed basket-shooting challenge where the instructions and rules were given by a researcher wearing a T-shirt with a large skull and the word “Death” on the front. The T-shirt was visible to half of the participants (randomly selected) and was covered by a zipped jacket for the others. The task was to shoot baskets from the three-point line, the free-throw line, or right under the hoop, but without taking the same type of shot twice in a row. Scoring escalated the farther the subject was from the hoop.
Subjects who viewed the skull-and-death shirt outperformed those who did not by 30 percent. They also seemed to exert more effort, attempting an average of 11.85 shots versus 8.33 by those who did not see the skull-emblazoned attire.
“They took more shots, better shots and they hustled more and ran faster,” Lifshin said.
Zestcott and Lifshin, first authors on the study that is forthcoming in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, say they simply applied a principle that is already well accepted in a new way. More than 500 studies conducted over the past 25 years confirm that reminding people of their mortality leads them to shore up their self-esteem as a way of dealing with the threat. Somehow the better we think of ourselves — the more intelligent, the more fit we think we are — the more we believe we can push death off.
Athletic prowess, it turns out, works just fine. As Zestcott said, “We tried to think about ways terror management theory might have a bright side to it.”
Score one for the scientists.