The Ideomotor Effect

Ideomotor Effect

I grew up playing basketball and one thing coaches always tell players is that they have to have confidence when they shoot the ball. If you shoot while thinking I hope I don’t miss, then you are going to miss. If you are worried about being yelled at for missing a shot and if you are afraid to miss, then your chances of actually making a shot are slim. At the same time, shooting with confidence, believing you are going to make the shot before you have even caught the ball, is going to make it more likely that you will score. Visualizing a perfect swish before you shoot, the wisdom of all my coaches said, and your swish will come true, but think about what might happen if you miss, and you are out of luck.

 

I don’t know how much I believed this during my playing days, but the idea was everywhere. There were certainly times I can still remember where I was afraid of missing a shot, only to miss the shot. I can remember a moment from my senior year, where I was wide open for a three on the left hand side. I knew I was going to shoot the ball before my teammate even passed it to me, and I knew I was going to make the shot. “Shoot it,” he said as he passed it to me – not that I needed any extra incentive – and of course, I swished the shot and nodded my head like I was LeBron James as I ran back down the court.

 

Research from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that there really might be something to this shooting mindset. Kahneman writes about a study of college students who were asked to complete a word scramble and then walk down the hall to another room. When students were presented with words associated with the elderly, the average time it took them to get up from their chair and walk down the hallway to the next room was longer than it was for a control group who didn’t have word scrambles related to old people.

 

Kahneman writes, “The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”

 

Simply thinking about old people made people move slower. Thoughts, even thoughts and ideas that people were not directly focused on, changed the way people behaved in the physical world. It is like listening to some pump-up music while pumping iron, but without deliberately setting up the environment to get you in the zone for the physical task. The ideomotor effect represents the connection between our mental state and our physical performance, and it appears that it can be conscious and intentional as well as subconscious and unknown.

 

So while it might seem like a bunch of superstition to believe that visualizing a swish versus fearing a missed basket will influence whether or not you make a shot, the ideomotor effect might actually make it a reality. My coaches probably hadn’t heard of the ideomotor effect or of a study of slow walking college students thinking about old people. Nevertheless, their intuition seems to have been correct, and my thoughts while shooting basketballs in high school may have played a big role in whether I made a shot or missed.

Our Perceptions of the World

In a diary entry dated 04/08/1931 in Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published book The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes, “For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.” There are many things in this world that make assumptions about, and we never truly know if our assumptions are correct. But what information we take in, and how we use that information and interpret it, shapes the world we construct and the assumptions we attach to the world.

 

I really like this quote, especially at this time, because I have been thinking about consciousness after having listened to a few podcast episodes from Rob Reid’s show, After On. Reid has had a few guests on his show who have talked about consciousness and the challenges in fully understanding what is happening in our brains. We don’t know exactly where consciousness comes from and whether it is within the brain or something that sits on top of the brain. We don’t know what it is that allows our brain matter and nervous system to become conscious and we don’t know where consciousness stops, whether it ends with dogs and ferrets or if it continues all the way down to bees, ants, or plants.

 

Beyond questions of consciousness, we have questions about the information that our body is able to take in and process. We also have questions about what information we actually become aware of with all the the information that is available for us to perceive. We know that we can’t smell as well as a dog, we can’t hear the same frequencies as a bat, and we can’t sense the earth’s magnetic field the way a bird does. Bees can see a greater range of the light spectrum than we can see, but we at least have eyes which can see much better than starfish which can only pick up on whether it is light above them or not. For each animal, including humans, the range of possible senses and information that can be taken in is called the umwelt. A German word to describe the experiences of the world for that animal.

 

All this brings me back to Pessoa’s quote. From a pure physics level, it is easy to see that our thinking and understanding of the world is limited by the physics of the universe and by the information we can take in form our surroundings. The world we see and know, in some sense, is not the whole world. Pessoa is correct to say that our world is defined by the way we perceive it.

 

But what Pessoa meant in his quote was not so much about physics and the limitations of the human body to sense and experience the world. How we think about the world constructs the reality we live within. The narratives and stories we come up with describe ourselves, define the society we live in, and explain what we do are the things that make up our reality. We can be wrong about these perceptions, like when we hear someone near-by laugh and assume they are laughing about us. We should be aware of the thoughts and narratives we create about the world and we should be willing to question them. We should work to have the most clear picture of the world possible, always understanding that there is more happening than we can ever know, and always remembering that how we perceive the world will determine the reality we see in front of us.