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Bo Van Pelt celebrates his hole-in-one during the final round of the Masters on April 8. New research suggests that golfers may be able to improve their games by believing the hole they're aiming for is larger than it really is.
Bo Van Pelt celebrates his hole-in-one during the final round of the Masters on April 8. New research suggests that golfers may be able to improve their games by believing the hole they're aiming for is larger than it really is. Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Psychologists at Purdue University have come up with an interesting twist on the old notion of the power of positive thinking. Call it the power of positive perception: They've shown that you may be able to improve your golf game by believing the hole you're aiming for is larger than it really is.
Jessica Witt, who studies how perception and performance are related, decided to look at golf — specifically, how the appearance of the hole changes depending on whether you're playing well or poorly.
So she took a large poster board to a golf course with circles of different sizes drawn on it. Some circles matched the size of the golf hole, some were larger and some were smaller. As golfers finished their rounds, she showed them her poster board and asked them to select the circle that matched the size of the hole.
After she got the golfers' scores, she did some math: "The golfers who did better and had a lower score selected larger circles as matching the size of the hole," Witt says. The good golfers overestimated the size of the hole by 10 to 20 percent.
But then Witt wondered whether this difference in perception could be put to use to improve a golfer's game. So she tried an experiment. In her lab, she made an artificial putting green and used an optical illusion to make the golf hole appear larger or smaller than it really was.
Which Orange Circle Is Larger? In this optical trick, known as the Ebbinghaus illusion, both orange circles are the same size. (Go ahead, measure!) When small circles were projected around a golf hole, golfers perceived the hole to be larger and subsequently made more putts.
The trick involved projecting small circles of light around the hole to make it look larger, or projecting large circles of light around the hole to make it look smaller. It's an optical trick called the Ebbinghaus illusion, which you can see here on the left.
"The illusion wouldn't interfere with the putting; it would only change what people perceived," Witt says. The hole itself never changed sizes.
As she writes in the journal Psychological Science, the result was clear: "When people perceived the hole to be bigger, they also made their putts more successfully." Witt thinks the change in perception to make a task seem easier will apply in a lot of different circumstances.
Perception And Confidence In Other Activities
"These effects aren't specific to athletes," she says. "We find them in everybody, in all kinds of tasks. So if you have to walk up a hill to get to work, if you're tired or low energy or wearing a heavy backpack, that hill looks steeper or a distance looks farther. So it's apparent in everybody, not just in athletes."
Witt says along with a positive perception comes confidence — if the hill doesn't seem too steep, or the golf hole appears bigger than it really is, that altered perception gives you confidence in your abilities.
But Tim Woodman, who heads the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science at Bangor University in Wales, says for athletes at least, just having more confidence doesn't guarantee top performance.
"It's not quite as simple as the more confident you are, the better," he says. "It's the more confident you are, the better — up to a certain point." He says that confidence is important, but self-doubt can help, too.
"If you're good at something but you doubt yourself a little bit, you're more likely to try that bit harder," he says. "Whereas if you are confident and you know you're very good at something, you might just slack off a little bit and move into some sort of cruise control, and then actually not perform very well."
Woodman says top athletes find the right balance between confidence and uncertainty to perform at their peak.