Thinking about your impending death might push you to be more successful.
In a new study, researchers investigated the performance of recreational basketball players after being given death-related prompts, from direct questions to subtle visual reminders.
While it may seem like a grim topic, the researchers found that introducing the concept of death led the participants to subconsciously strive to boost their ‘protective self-esteem,’ resulting in better gameplay and more points scored.
Thinking about your impending death might push you to be more successful. While it may seem like a grim topic, researchers found that introducing the concept of death led the participants to strive to boost their ‘protective self-esteem,’ resulting in better performance
The findings come from two studies from the University of Arizona which are set to be published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.
Researchers recruited male college students who were not on a formal college basketball team, but instead played for fun, and indicated that they care about their performance in the sport.
The experiments tap into psychology’s theory of ‘terror management,’ the researchers explain, which helps humans to cope with the looming inevitability of death rather than living on constant fear.
‘Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful,’ said UA psychology doctoral student Uri Lifshin, co-lead investigator of the research.
‘Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.
‘Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem.
‘Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.’
The team focused on people who are motivated to perform well in sports, the study’s other lead investigator Colin Zestcott explained, as those who do not feel this way would care less about whether they win or lose.
In the first study, Zestcott posed as a participant and played two one-on-one games with each of the 31 subjects.
Each game lasted roughly seven minutes, and in between, the participants were randomly assigned questionnaires to complete.
Some of these included prompts about death, including: ‘Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,’ and ‘Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.’
But, others were focused solely on basketball.
The participants were also given delay tasks after the questions to allow the thoughts of death to brew unconsciously.
In the subsequent games, the researchers found that those who had been given questions about death had improved by 40 percent, while the others saw no improvement.
And, the group who had been given death questionnaires performed 20 percent better overall than the participants in the other group.
‘When we’re threatened with death, we’re motivated to regain that protective sense of self-esteem, and when you like basketball and you’re out on the basketball court, winning and performing well is the ultimate way to gain self-esteem,’ Lifshin said.
In the second study, the researchers examined this idea in individual basket-shooting challenges.
To do this, Lifshin gave each person a 30-second description of the challenges and rules.
For half of the group, this was done while wearing a black T-shirt printed with the word ‘death’ repeatedly, in the shape of a large skull.
For the other half, the shirt was covered by a zipped-up jacket.
The participants then each played a one-minute basket-shooting challenge, in which a layup would earn one point, a shot from the free-throw line would earn two, and three-points would be given for a shot made from the three point line.
But, they were not allowed to attempt the same type of shot back-to-back.
The researchers found that the players who had seen the ‘death’ shirt outperformed the other group by roughly 30 percent.
They even took more shots than the others, with an average of 11.85 per minute compared to 8.33 taken by those who did not see the shirt.
‘They took more shots, better shots, and they hustled more and ran faster,’ Lifshin said.
According to the researchers, these findings work to support the terror management theory.
And, they say coaches have been intuitively tapping into this idea for years, with expressions like, ‘You win this and they’ll remember you forever,’ playing into the desire for immortality.
‘We’ve known from many studies that reminders of death arouse a need for terror management and therefore increase self-esteem striving through performance on relatively simple laboratory tasks,’ said Jeff Greenberg, a co-author on one of the studies.
‘However, these experiments are the first to show that activating this motivation can influence performance on complex, real-world behaviours.’
The researchers say these findings likely carry over into other sports and even other areas of life as well, including people’s jobs.
According to Zestcott, the thought of death might be an ‘untapped’ way of motivating both athletes and people ‘in other realms.’