While laying out “how winning is done,” Rocky Balboa shrewdly noted that “the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.” A new study suggests that point is dead on.
Basketball players that were grimly reminded of their own inevitable demise before playing took more shots and scored more points in a study published in an upcoming issue of Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The researchers behind the experiments hypothesize that the pep-talk tactic fits with the established “terror management theory,” which proposes that humans are motivated to seek self-esteem, meaning, and symbolic immortality—in this case becoming a famous athlete—in order to manage their fear of death.
“We’ve known from many studies that reminders of death arouse a need for terror management and therefore increase self-esteem striving though performance on relatively simple laboratory tasks,” Jeff Greenberg, a study co-author and psychologist at the University of Arizona, said in a news release. “However, these experiments are the first to show that activating this motivation can influence performance on complex, real-world behaviors.”
For the study, Greenberg and colleagues first recruited basketball players to play two back-to-back, one-on-one games with lead researcher Colin Zestcott, another psychologist at the University of Arizona. (The players didn’t know that Zestcott was a researcher; they thought he was another study participant.) After the first game, half of the participants were randomly assigned to take a questionnaire on how they felt about basketball. The other half took one about their thoughts on their own death.
Those that took the spooky survey saw a 40-percent boost in their individual performance during the second game as compared with their first. Those that took the non-macabre survey saw no change.
In a second experiment, participants were given a basket-shooting challenge, which a researcher described to them in a 30-second tutorial. Based on a coin-toss, half the participants got the tutorial while the researcher was wearing a plain jacket. The other half saw the researcher in a T-shirt with a skull-shaped word-cloud made entirely of the word ‘death.’ The participants’ performance on the shooting challenge was then scored by another researcher who didn’t know which players saw the death shirt.
In the end, players who did see the shirt took more shots, and outperformed by 30 percent, those that just saw the jacket.
While the researchers acknowledge that some coaches may already tap into this dark motivation, they suggest that further studies could dig up new ways to exploit our fear of pushing daisies.
“This is a potentially untapped way to motivate athletes but also perhaps to motivate people in other realms,” Zestcott said. “Outside of sports, we think that this has implications for a range of different performance-related tasks, like people’s jobs, so we’re excited about the future of this research.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correct an attribution.