For instance, many people worry that they're likely to choke under pressure. They look to coaches and elaborate training techniques to overcome this tendency. Or they just worry and bite their nails before important presentations or competitions. But in one study, researchers told some track athletes that what they thought of as pre-race jitters actually improved performance, while telling another group that this sort of arousal was usually detrimental. The athletes performed accordingly when the pressure was on. In another athletics study, the researchers gave every subject a personality questionnaire and then randomly gave some of them false feedback that their answers indicated they were the sort of person who thrives under pressure. When it came time to compete, the athletes told they would likely do better under pressure did so.
How can cheering for a team backfire?
This is one of those things that can happen, under certain circumstances, even though it normally doesn't. Normally, teams benefit when they're playing in front of friendly, supportive crowds hoping for victory. But, psychologist Roy Baumeister has shown in controlled lab conditions where subjects played video games competitively, that players' performance suffered when they had a supportive audience. They sensed the expectations, and they didn't want to disappoint. They seemed to try too hard not to mess up rather than to win. It's a classic sort of choking under pressure — to try and over-control and over think, when we would be better served by allowing more automatic skills and movements to take over.
Outside of the lab, there's the example of British soccer players who play for their national team. They are among the best in the world, beloved by millions. But they know that those who cheer for them, who so want their success, also harbor doubts based on many years of the English team not living up to their high expectations on the international stage. Most pointedly, the English teams are notorious for losing high-pressure penalty kick shootouts in big tournaments. They are among the most highly skilled players around, but studies show they are rock-bottom among soccer powers when it comes to penalty kick conversion. Too much is riding on their shots. Penalty kick shootouts are typically won and lost based on who can handle the pressure and who will crack. And being on a team whose fans are so rabid that wins and losses can radically impact their national pride and self worth brings intense pressure that can be murder on the penalty spot.
You have a fascinating discussion of phantom limbs. Can you explain this phenomena, and what it reveals?
Phantom limbs are a sensory illusion experienced by most people who have lost a limb. Periodically, they actually feel their lost limb re-form but often in strange and painful ways – as if the limb is twisted or being wrenched up behind them. The phenomenon and the pain had been observed for centuries and no drugs or surgery could help.
In the early 1990s, a neuroscientist named V.S. Ramachandran hypothesized that the sensation of the lost limb and the pain are both conjured by the brain based on its expectations that we have an intact body – two arms and two legs — under our control. Accordingly, the brain gives motor commands to an arm or leg that isn’t there anymore, and when nothing happens, the neural confusion results in pain.
The fact that our brains operate with these expectations for our bodies also has implications for people who haven’t lost a limb. It means that our brains are constantly assessing and re-assessing who we are based on matching these expectations with sensory feedback. For instance, when subjects are in a virtual reality world looking at themselves moving in a virtual mirror, their brains takes ownership of their digital avatar. Consciously, the brain knows this is a computer simulation, but at a more automatic level the brain accepts the avatar as its body, moving where and when it’s commanded: OK, this is me. And research shows that if the avatar is taller, or better looking, or older, or a different race, this can subtly change who we think we are, and thereby shift our attitudes, choices and behaviors.