The philosophy of ’flow’ suggests that we often perform best when we do things automatically. In a sporting context, the jitters often emerge not because we become bad at that skill, but because we start thinking about something that we used to do naturally.
The feeling is that directing our conscious attention to the various movements our bodies need to undertake is a bad thing. That much is fairly well established, but what if such a self-focus can have much wider implications? What if thinking in this way could also harm our ability to learn in all manner of other ways?
A recent paper suggests thinking in such a way engages what the authors call the ’self-schema’. This is a "functional neural network located anatomically in cortical midline structures."
The authors believe that whenever this network is activated, our ability to learn, or indeed perform, anything that requires a level of skill is compromised.
The researchers tested their hypothesis by splitting participants into two groups. Both groups had to throw a ball at a target ten times, with those closest to the bulls-eye scoring the most points. As you’d expect, both groups performed about as well as each other. Then, however, one group was tasked with thinking intently about their performance in the previous task, their abilities as a thrower and so on. The other group just hung around for a bit without having any task to perform.
The two groups were then asked to play the game again, with another ten attempts at hitting the target. This time, the group who had been given time to analyse their previous performance did much worse than both their previous levels and those of the other group.
"A simple manipulation designed to activate the self-schema ... was sufficient to degrade performance," the authors say.
The research team then conducted a second experiment whereby participants were again split into two groups. This time, they were asked to hit a small, golf ball-sized object at a target using a bat. It required similar skills as found in games such as baseball, which none of the participants had played in the past year.
In between sessions playing the game, participants were asked to complete a written task. One group was asked to write about their experience playing baseball, how they felt as an athlete, their emotional response to the game, and so on. The second group was asked to write about things they could see in the lab where the experiment took place.
As with the first experiment, the players then reconvened to play the game again, and once again, those in the self-reflective group performed much worse after their session of navel gazing.
Why self-analysis is bad
The authors were initially surprised by the extent to which analysing past performance would hinder their future performance. They believe their results show the perils of doing so.
"The ostensibly innocuous activity of contemplating one’s own experiences, emotions, strengths, weaknesses and attributes, might have activated a lurking neural self-network that interfered with the process of motor learning," they say.
Of course, as with any isolated study, it should not be taken as gospel, but it does suggest that being your own fiercest critic may not actually do much to improve your future performance, which is something we can all heed when it comes to workplace performance.