A spate of recent reporting on the science of effort brings good news for slackers everywhere: Trying too hard really is pointless—or even counterproductive.
In a post at The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman gives a name to the phenomenon: The “ironic effect,” that perverse result that can come from making too much effort. Quoting the Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner, Burkeman explains:
We see a rut coming up in the road ahead and proceed to steer our bike right into it. We make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation and then cringe in horror as we blurt out exactly that thing. We carefully cradle the glass of red wine as we cross the room, all the while thinking ‘don't spill,’ and then juggle it onto the carpet under the gaze of our host.
In fact, the realization is not brand new. A review of scholarly research over the years identifies a few more times it pays not to exert yourself.
When you’re focusing on a fine-motor task
In a seminal 1998 study on how trying too hard can backfire, Wegner and his team at the University of Virginia had subjects hold a small pendulum over a glass grid. One group was instructed simply to hold the pendulum steady—a moderately challenging task requiring fine motor control—while another group was specifically told not to let the pendulum swing along the horizontal axis. As the researchers predicted, the group that was given the more specific instructions was less successful at preventing the pendulum from swinging horizontally.
Read the paper, as published in the journal Psychological Science, here.
When you’re trying to lose weight
In 2005, a team of psychologists at the University of Toronto recruited a hundred students and assigned them to one of three groups: One was given strict instructions to avoid chocolate for a week, one was issued a week-long ban on foods containing vanilla, and one was not given any dietary constraints. At the end of the week, when the students were brought back to the lab and offered various foods, the ones who had been chocolate-deprived consumed more chocolate than any other group, and both of the groups whose diet was restricted reported more and stronger cravings for the forbidden foods.
The same principle has been suggested as the culprit in bulimics’ unhealthy eating patterns: When researchers had 39 bulimic women monitor their eating behaviors over the course of a month, they found that their binges were usually followed by periods of strict dieting.
Read the paper, as published in the journal International Journal of Eating Disorders, here.
When you’re trying to win a game
There are two contradictory theories as to why athletes “choke” when it matters most: They become distracted and lose their focus, or they focus too hard (the ironic effect). A 2001 study by Michigan State University psychologists Sian Belock and Thomas Carr found that it’s pressure that comes from “explicit monitoring of performance” that paradoxically impairs performance. They split students golfers into three groups and taught them to perform a putting task. The three groups practiced under different conditions: One group was taught to putt while also playing a distracting word game; one group was made to feel self-conscious by putting in front of a video camera; and one group practiced under normal conditions. When all three groups had achieved a similar level of competence, the researchers had them perform the putting task in a high-pressure situation, where they were offered a financial incentive to improve their performance. Only the group that was accustomed to feeling self-conscious managed to improve their performance; both of the other groups performed significantly worse. The authors concluded that when trained athletes become self-conscious and think too hard about the motions they need to perform, they get in the way of their own muscle memory and lower their chances of succeeding:
Pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. Attention to execution at this step-by-step level is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performances.
Read the paper, as published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, here.
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