It’s not a good idea to tell yourself what not to do

Saturday, November 27th, 2021

You’ve probably heard that it’s not a good idea to tell yourself what not to do:

A recent study (Gorgulu, 2019) looked at what would happen when experienced tennis players were asked to serve, and not miss, under a bit of pressure.


Specifically, when their anxiety went up, participants hit more balls long and wide — the exact thing they were explicitly told not to do. Meanwhile, the number of balls hit into the middle of the service box — the 0-point area, where they neither gained nor lost points — was pretty much the same regardless of whether they were nervous or not.

In other words, under pressure, the athletes didn’t just become less accurate servers in general. They became less accurate in a very specific way — hitting more balls to the exact place on the court that they were trying to avoid.

Which is pretty weird, when you think about it — so why does this happen?

Well, there are a few possibilities, but the theory of “ironic error” essentially suggests that we have two mental processes in play — an “operating” process and a “monitoring” process. And that when we’re under pressure, given the limited cognitive resources available to us, monitoring our performance ends up taking resources away from the operating process, which makes us more likely to mess up in exactly the way we’re trying not to.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Superego, Ego, Id.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Be vague in your aversions and specific in your desires. Focus on what you want.

    That said, the negative/subtractive approach is a great learning tool. Disbelieve all that is proven false. Reject all that is proven not to work. Reserve judgment on all else. This approach is empirically sound.

    The only problem with it is human emotion — you psych yourself out if you bring the negative into sharp mental focus.

    You can’t focus on the right thing until you know what the right thing is. And it’s easier to know what not to do than to know what to do instead. Plenty of people will tell you what not to do. Precious few will tell you what to do instead.

    Even Zen meditation needs something to focus on. It works by focusing on something harmless and neutral. This might work as a stopgap measure.

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    I thought of this article as I was working with a 4-mm Allen wrench, in a very cramped position, on a large machine. Yep, I dropped the wrench. Retrieved with a telescoping magnet.

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