London 2012: Psychology at the Olympic Games

I’ve provided links below to all eight PsySociety posts on the psychology of the Olympic games. Click on the links to learn more about what blind judoka can teach us about emotions, how to predict which record-breaking athletes will be accused of drug abuse, why it’s so bad to be in the last lane of the Olympic pool, and more!

If you compare yourself with Michael Phelps, will you become a better swimmer?

“Social comparison theory claims that all people are fundamentally driven to evaluate their opinions and abilities, and when there aren’t any objective standards that people can use to evaluate themselves, they will compare their opinions and abilities to those of relevant others as an evaluative standard. If you are a swimmer and you want to improve your abilities, should you make a habit of comparing yourself with Michael Phelps?”

We won. They lost.

“People who talk about their teams after a victory are more likely to group themselves in with the winners. ‘We didn’t miss a shot!’ or ‘Our rebounding was amazing!’ But fans reflecting back on a loss aren’t quite so eager to associate themselves with their failed, beloved teams. Even when sticking up for them (‘They were just having an off night!’), you’re still more likely to see that disconnected ‘they’ emerge.”

Olympic greatness: Biology or motivation?

“People with entity views tend to prioritize ‘looking good’ over actually developing competence. After all, if you believe that you are born with a set ability level and it can’t really be altered, it makes more sense to focus on how you appear than waste your time in a futile attempt to change your innate ability level. Incremental theorists, on the other hand, are more likely to set goals that revolve around learning and increasing competence. Generally, this becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy: People who believe that they can improve their abilities with hard work generally end up working harder, and they end up gaining mastery and becoming better in that domain as a result.”

Coulda, woulda, shoulda: Why silver medalists look so blue.

“Although you may logically assume that gold-medal athletes would seem the happiest and bronze-medal athletes would be slightly unhappier than their silver-medal counterparts, the study’s findings tell a different story. After carefully analyzing all of the videos, the coders determined that although gold medalists (understandably) seemed to be the happiest, silver medalists appeared significantly less happy than their bronze medalist companions.”

The benefits of seeing a “challenge” where others see a “threat.”

“Athletes who displayed a ‘challenge response’ in that 2-minute study (i.e. had elevated heart rates and higher levels of vasodilation) ended up performing better in their games throughout the rest of the season. The athletes who exhibited a ‘threat response’ (i.e. had elevated heart rates and vasoconstriction) performed worse. From this evidence, the researchers concluded that in the athletic domain (as had already been shown in most other domains), viewing a situation as a challenge will lead you to perform much better than viewing the same exact situation as a threat.”

The psychology of doping accusations: Which athletes raise the most suspicion?

“Because Shiwen’s accomplishments were so inconsistent with her previous performances, even though her prior times were still quite good, people were led to consider unique interactions between the swimmer and the situation that could possibly produce such an odd outcome rather than simply crediting the swimmer herself for her success. People typically search for these unusual Person x Situation interactions by turning to past experiences (e.g. other times that Olympians have accomplished extraordinary feats) and using these examples as a basis for comparison.”

Blind athletes provide clues about the nature of our emotions.

“What if observational learning isn’t the only way in which we figure out how to express our emotions? What if those emotional expressions — or at least, some of those expressions — actually come ‘pre-programmed’ into our very nature, and we would make those grimaces, brow-furrows, and polite smiles of thinly-veiled contempt without ever seeing other people make these expressions first?”

Why do swimmers hate Lane 8?

“If swimmers cannot see how well their competitors are performing, they might not swim fast enough to beat them…even if they subjectively feel like they are putting in the maximum amount of effort possible, and even if they have a high enough ability level that they really should be able to win the race. Similarly, if athletes are competing against opponents who are far below their caliber, their performances might suffer as a result, even if they are not deliberately trying to perform poorly. In an interview with Ryan Seacrest that aired during the Olympic Closing Ceremonies, American runner Allyson Felix articulated this idea perfectly when explaining why she and her 4x400M relay teammates didn’t break the world record time, despite the fact that they all believe it was well within their reach.”

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