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Experimental Psychology

Think you're good at something? Better than the average person? Turns out, your thoughts may be able to improve your performance.

O'maraA new paper from University of Dayton associate professor of psychology Erin O’Mara used five experiments to show how self-enhancement — or the motivation to have and maintain a positive sense of self — improves how someone does on a task, specifically when self-enhancement is focused on that task.

The results were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a peer-reviewed publication by the American Psychological Association.

“We were trying to understand the motivation to see yourself positively,” said O’Mara, who worked with Lowell Gaertner at the University of Tennessee.

“Previous research has examined how that motivation impacts psychological well-being, but in this set of experiments we were interested in how it affects actual performance on tasks,” she said. “I think it’s really important to know what function the motivation can serve and how it can influence our lives.”

One experiment randomly assigned people to write about how they are better than others at enduring discomfort, using examples from the last week. Everyone was then asked to put their arm in the bucket of icy water — or to endure discomfort — as a part of the experimental procedure.

The people who first wrote about their ability to endure discomfort, thereby engaging in task-specific self-enhancement, kept their arm submerged for almost a minute longer, in part because they had more confidence in themselves to complete the task successfully, O’Mara said.

The creativity experiments asked people to list uses for a brick and then a candle. Those who first wrote about how they are more creative than others, using examples from the last week, generated more uses and more creative responses.

While the research builds on the scientific understanding, O’Mara cautioned self-enhancement can’t make the impossible possible.

“When it’s focused on a specific task, self-enhancement is showing an improvement in performance,” she said. “But to say, ‘I’m better than other people at this one thing’ doesn’t mean you’re going to perform better than others at everything. Our findings specifically ruled out this possibility.”

In other words, thinking about how great of a runner you are should improve your performance in a race, but not in a spelling bee, O’Mara and Gaertner write.

They also note self-enhancement alone is not a good tool to improve performance.

“For athletes interested in improving their game or musicians wanting to improve their recitals, we recommend practice and more practice,” they write. “Self-enhancement without practice would likely be a fast track to failure.”

The full study is available online: Does Self-Enhancement Facilitate Task Performance?


News and Communications Staff