Perception can boost performance in peculiar ways:
As director of the Action-Modulated Perception Lab at Purdue, [Dr. Jessical Witt had] previously demonstrated that for successful tennis players and field-goal kickers, the ball or goal looks larger than it does to players not enjoying a hot streak. Success, for these athletes, had changed how they perceived the field of action.
But, Dr. Witt wondered, could you turn that situation around and induce a performance-enhancing effect? Could you, by making the ball or goal seem larger, make people perform better? Or, by making it look smaller, would you cause people to do worse?
To test the question, she turned to golf. Basketball hoops are difficult to manipulate. They’re up too high.
So she set up a putting green, with a standard-size golf hole at the top of a slight incline. In the ceiling, she mounted a projector that beamed a series of dark circles around the hole, surrounding it like beads on a necklace. In one image, these projected circles were smaller than the actual hole. In the other, they were larger.
Dr. Witt then had 36 volunteers view the hole from a few feet away, with and without the encircling projections, and “draw” on a computer screen their perception of the hole’s size using a digital drawing program.
Most of them perceived the hole to be larger than it actually was if smaller circles surrounded it, and smaller than life if it had bigger circles all around it.
When the volunteers subsequently putted, they landed more attempts when the hole was surrounded by little circles and seemed oversize to them. They missed more often when putting to the hole that, girded by larger circles, appeared shrunken.
Throughout, the actual size of the hole never changed.
“This finding was in some ways quite unexpected,” Dr. Witt says. It might seem obvious that a bigger-seeming target would invite success. But the reverse easily could be true, she says. A wider-seeming target could prompt wider shots. Reality would have betrayed you in that case, and you’d miss.
Or your perceptions might have no effect on performance. In an interesting study from 2004, when treadmill runners were told that they were striding at an easier pace than, in fact, they were, their bodies shrugged off the lie. The runners reported feeling exactly as tired as they would have felt running at their true pace, not at the pace they thought they were maintaining. Their lungs and legs weren’t fooled, even if the mind was.
“We suspect that a bigger target makes people feel more confident in their ability” to hit it, she says. And greater confidence typically results in better performance. She and her colleagues did not assess confidence levels in this experiment, she says, though they plan to do so in follow-up work.