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Self-Doubt May Help Improve Performance

New research finds that, under certain conditions, a dip in self-confidence can increase one’s performance level.
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Does a high level of self-confidence lead to better performances, on the stage or the athletic field? Plenty of research says yes. But another group of studies questions that conventional wisdom, suggesting a dollop of doubt is precisely what many people need in order to do their best work.

So is that tingle of anxiety you feel as you anticipate the curtain rising or the starter’s pistol going off helpful or harmful? Newly published research suggests that, at least under certain conditions, those butterflies in the stomach can be your friends.

Writing in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, a British research team led by Bangor University psychologist Tim Woodman describes a study centered on skipping rope. (The reasons behind this seemingly odd choice will be made clear shortly.)

Twenty-eight volunteers who were “at least moderately confident in their skipping ability” took part in the test. They were asked to say the word “now” each time they received an auditory cue while they were skipping.

After taking part in a one-minute practice run, half the participants were given a different rope for the actual test. They were told that this rope “would be more difficult to use, and would possibly interfere slightly with performance due to differences in weight, length and stiffness,” the researchers write. “In reality, the two skipping ropes were identical except for their color.”

This was, of course, a way to manipulate the athletes into a state of self-doubt. And according to their scores on a confidence-measuring test they filled out at the beginning of the experiment and again before the “real” test began, it worked: The self-confidence level of the participants presented with a second rope was significantly lower than that of the others.

However, their performance level – the number of skips they performed in each one-minute trial – was significantly higher than that of the control group. Only those using the "different" rope experienced a significant increase in performance level from the practice round to the actual competition.

Woodman and his colleagues can’t say precisely why this occurred, but they suspect that their warnings about the second rope may have negated any feelings of complacency the jumpers felt.

“Overconfidence may lead to feelings that one need not invest effort in the task,” they write. Thus a decrease in confidence may inspire people to greater levels of effort, which positively impacts their performance.

So why doesn’t this dynamic work all the time, as performers from Carly Simon to Laurence Olivier can attest? The answer brings us back to skipping rope.

The researchers note the task their volunteers took part in was extremely simple, arguably “to the point of being relatively effortless. Indeed, once it is mastered, it is possible that skipping requires minimum cognitive effort.”

That being the case, the test participants were able to channel their anxiety into motivation. If you’re performing a more complex task, such as playing a musical instrument, anxiety can result in focusing your attention on “specific elements of task execution.” And as any performer knows, that sort of self-consciousness can be self-defeating.

So the tentative answer this research suggests is: Pre-performance jitters can be helpful motivating tools, but only if the task you are executing is so strongly etched in your brain and body it is virtually automatic. The question of how you arrive at that state echoes the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.