LYNN NEARY, HOST:
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. And as NPR's Joe Palca reports, the power of positive perception is probably not limited to golf.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Purdue psychologist Jessica Witt studies how performance affects perception and vice versa. In one study, she decided to look at golf. How the appearance of the golf hole changes depending on whether you're playing well or poorly. She took a large poster board to a golf course.
JESSICA WITT: And on the poster board there were different size circles.
PALCA: Some circles matched the size of the golf hole, some were bigger, some smaller. As golfers finished their rounds, she showed them her poster board.
WITT: And asked them to select the circle that matched the size of the hole.
PALCA: She got the golfers to tell her their scores and she did some statistics.
WITT: The golfers who did better and had a lower score, selected larger circles as matching the size of the hole.
PALCA: 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 she used an optical illusion to make the golf hole appear larger. The trick involved projecting small circles of light around the hole to make it look larger or large circles to make it look smaller. Go to NPR.org if you want see the illusion and how effective it is.
WITT: The illusion wouldn't actually interfere with the putting, it would only change what people perceived.
PALCA: And so the hole was the same size in each case, but the projected circles made it appear larger or smaller.
PALCA: As she writes in the journal, Psychological Science, the result was clear.
WITT: When people perceived the hole to be bigger, they also made their putts more successfully.
PALCA: Witt thinks there's a clear relationship between how hard a task seems and how it appears.
WITT: These effects aren't specific to athletes. 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.
PALCA: Witt says with 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 says for athletes at least, just having more confidence doesn't guarantee top performance. Woodman heads the school of sport health and exercise science at Bangor University in Wales.
TIM WOODMAN: And it's not quite as simple as the more confident you are the better. It's the more confident the better up to a certain point.
PALCA: Woodman says, sure, you need to be confident, but a little self-doubt can help too.
WOODMAN: If you're good at something, but you doubt yourself a little bit, you're more likely to try that bit harder. Where 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.
PALCA: Woodman says top athletes find the right balance between confidence and uncertainty to perform at their peak. For the rest of us, it's probably enough just to work on the confidence part. I knew this story would be easy to write.
Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.
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