Let’s say you’re playing a game of soccer. And it’s not going well.
It’s been a long, tough game so far, and while everyone on your team has been playing pretty well, the other team is ahead.
You know you can push through and win … but first you need to psych yourself up. So what would you do? Would you give yourself a pep talk? Plan out an elaborate strategy?
What’s the best way to motivate yourself to not just stay in the game, but to actually do better?
Scientists wanted to test this question, so they set up an odd little competition.
Scientists in England recruited nearly 45,000 people (a stupendously huge sample size for a psych study, by the way) and pitted them against a computer in a kind of virtual race. The players had to try to find their ways through randomized grids of numbers as fast as they could.
Each player got three chances to play this game (plus one practice round). Between the rounds, the players were given different kinds of video motivational messages (presented by Olympic athlete Michael Johnson, which is kind of delightful).
The messages broadly fell into three categories:
Category 1 was self-talk.
This is pretty much what it says on the label. In these motivational messages, Johnson encouraged the players to talk to themselves, saying stuff like, “I can beat that score!”
Category 2 was imagery.
This category of motivational messages encouraged players to unleash their inner eyes and visualize stuff — like beating the computer or getting through the number grid super-fast.
And Category 3 was called “if-then planning.”
In this case, Johnson encouraged players to come up with specific battle plans for the game. “If I start worrying about mistakes,” they might have said to themselves, “then I will calm down and relax.”
The scientists also broke each of those three categories into four different focuses.
The motivations were sorted into piles based on what the desired outcome might be, like “focusing on staying calm,” “remembering the instructions,” or “thinking through the process of playing the game itself.”
Then the scientists collected data on all those different factors, put them through their science-o-matic data analyzer (note: doesn’t actually exist), and lo and behold … results popped out!
So which approach won?
It turns out that saying “I can do this” (either in your mind or out loud) is a game-changer.
Both the self-talk and imagery-motivated players did well, especially when they focused on the outcome they wanted or the process that could get them there. But self-talk not only helped players do better — it made them feel that they were doing better, which is key.
Unfortunately, there were some categories that didn’t do as well. If-then planning helped a bit if the players focused on the outcome or process, but it wasn’t as strong as the other two. And focusing on the instructions or trying to control emotions didn’t really help much either.
Self-talk isn’t the right solution for every situation. But if you’re struggling with psyching yourself up for something, it’s worth trying it out.
The scientists pointed out that their study looked at a short-duration computer game, so getting yourself pumped up before a business meeting or track event might require a different strategy. Plus, everyone’s brains work a little differently. What might work for one person might not work for everybody.
But the scientists on this project think this work could help people design better interventions to help people stay motivated.
If you need to get pumped up, channel this adorable kid.
You might feel a little silly, but go on over to your mirror and tell yourself that you can do this. Or channel your inner Little Engine That Could (“I think I can, I think I can”). Or maybe announce to the world: “I’ll beat that darn computer this time.”
It might just work.