Before I went to college, I was never a big basketball fan (for those who know me now, I’m aware that this is probably surprising). As a result, when I arrived for my freshman year at Duke and began attending a ton of basketball games, I had the opportunity to learn an entire dictionary’s worth of terms for the first time.
One of the phrases that I quickly heard was “playing down.” Even though we were highly ranked and expected to do well later in the season against big-ticket teams like the #2 Texas Longhorns (who we eventually beat by 31 points), I was somewhat surprised by the fact that our margins of victories over early opponents were, quite frankly, not as impressive as I had expected them to be.
“Ugh, we’re playing down again. We always do this,” my friend Leah would say.
It wasn’t intentional. The players probably didn’t want to run up the score, but they also probably didn’t want to make every game against a low-ranked opponent a too-close-for-comfort nail-biter. You would think that, given the large difference in rankings (and presumably in ability levels), the better team should be able to maintain a respectable 15-20 point lead — wide enough that no one had to worry about the outcome, but close enough that it wasn’t rubbing the score in the other team’s faces.
Yet…they didn’t. Most of the time they made sloppy mistakes, missing easy 3-point shots or turning over the ball more times than we could count. The looks of frustration on their faces let us know for sure that this wasn’t anything they were doing on purpose. They weren’t thinking, “OK, this is a no-name team…let’s just not play as well as usual.” They were certainly putting in effort, but they simply couldn’t break past a ceiling that seemed to be hanging far lower than usual, even though their skills were demonstrably better when they played higher-ranked teams. In short, as Leah noted, they were “playing down.“
Now, flash forward to the 2012 Olympic Games. During several of the swimming events, commentators noted that the swimmers in the end lanes were at a significant disadvantage because they could not see how fast the other swimmers were going. In fact, some people have even blamed the dreaded “Lane 8″ for Michael Phelps’ failure to medal during the 400M Individual Medley.
Yet…this is an Olympic event. Presumably, athletes should want to do their absolute best at all times, regardless of how the competition is performing. Wouldn’t athletes always want to swim to the fullest extent of their abilities to ensure a gold medal, or even possibly snag a record-breaking time? Why should the speed of the other swimmers affect anything?
By now, the answer should be obvious. Swimmers — just like basketball players, and just like all other athletes — play down.
Admittedly, “playing down” isn’t exactly the correct psychological term. Instead, this phenomenon is better known as a key aspect of motivational intensity theory.
According to psychologists Jack Brehm and Elizabeth Self, “if we assume that the organism conserves energy, then motivational arousal, or the mobilization of energy, should be no greater than is necessary to produce the needed instrumental behavior.” In other words, people naturally aim to generate the amount of energy that is absolutely necessary to produce the outcome that is needed, like winning the gold medal (or winning the game) — no more, no less. Importantly, this is not necessarily an intentional process; although people can deliberately choose to conserve energy and voluntarily put in limited amounts of effort if they have assessed that they can do so and get away with it, this process is often a completely unintended result of how you estimate the performances of those around you.
As a result, 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. In Felix’s words:
I think it definitely was [attainable], but I think it’s hard to run from the front, when you have a lead like that…you’re not battling with anybody, you’re just pushing, and hoping. But we were close, so now we have something to shoot for.
Even though Felix and her teammates certainly wanted to run fast enough to break the world record time, they were not quite able to pull it out. On some level, Felix clearly understands the motivational intensity trap: She recognizes that it feels more challenging to run for a time-based goal when there are no competing runners nearby to push you towards the finish line. However, she still can’t articulate exactly why this is the case…an oversight which is especially glaring when you notice that she clearly thinks that they were “pushing and hoping” as much as they could. Although the American runners certainly displayed an impressive performance during the relay, and it certainly looks like they were running as fast as their legs could carry them, Brehm and Self would probably argue that having another team on their tails might have allowed them to pull out jusssst enough more energy to successfully break the world record.
Image of Jon Scheyer by James DiBianco via Flicker; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image of Olympic Pool via Wikipedia; public domain image.
Brehm, Jack W., & Self, Elizabeth A. (1989). The intensity of motivation. Annual Review of Psychology, 40, 109-131