Don’t make a mistake, don’t make a... Doh!

Performers at the Olympic Games will attempt to perform to their potential under intense pressure. Researchers at Bangor University’s Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance have revealed a remarkable backlash that some performers will suffer from.

This is the ironic error: the performance error that each Olympic athlete will specifically trying most to avoid. 

The research project has been underway since 2002. Its studies have consistently shown that when people are under pressure to perform well they tend to commit the specific performance error that they are trying to avoid. For example, if a golfer under pressure tells herself, “whatever you do, don’t hit the ball short”, she tends to hit the ball short more consistently than when not under pressure. 

The most recent research confirms this finding in two remarkable ways:

  • Athletes under pressure do not commit random errors, they commit specifically the error that they are trying to avoid (the ironic error);
  • Athletes who attempt to mask their performance anxiety (i.e. to look cool) when under pressure are more likely to suffer from ironic performance effects. This is because their cognitive system is overloaded by repression-associated cues like “do not show anxiety” and “do not hit the ball short”.. 

There are two efficient ways of reducing the likelihood of committing an ironic error. The first is to reduce anxiety and hence the pressure that is experienced; the second is to use positive statements when preparing for the competition (e.g., “focus on the centre of the hole”).

The widespread impact and application of ironic behaviour and performance extends far beyond the Olympic Games. The researchers have helped parents deal effectively with children’s behaviour by consistently rephrasing negative parenting comments into positive statements (e.g. from “don’t eat so much chocolate” to “take an apple”).

The research also suggests that it is specifically the negative phrasing that is thought to induce the likelihood of ironic behaviour. So changing behaviour is best achieved by rephrasing the desired behaviour change and any associated reward from a negative direction ( “Don’t smoke”) to a positive direction (“Each time I think of smoking and do not smoke I am a good person”).