Simple as it may sound, The Little Engine That Could had the right idea. A large online study found that motivational self-talk improved people’s scores in a video game. The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

A team of British researchers put out a call for participants on the now-defunct BBC Lab UK website, which connected volunteers with online experiments. The response was impressive, to say the least: 44,742 volunteers between the ages of 16 and 91. Nearly two-thirds were male. 

All the participants were taught to play a computer game and were then randomly sorted into four groups: three experimental groups (self-talk, imagery, or if-then planning) and one control group. The three experimental groups were then subdivided into four groups, each with its own focus (process, outcome, arousal-control, and instruction), which gave the researchers a total of 12 different experimental conditions and one control group. 

After playing one round of the game, all the participants were shown videos featuring American Olympic gold medalist-turned-motivational-speaker Michael Johnson. In the video for the control group, Johnson explained how the game worked, and mentioned that it might be challenging. He taught the imagery group how to imagine themselves succeeding or overcoming obstacles, and the if-then group how to handle trouble using “if-then” thinking. An example from the ‘process’ group: “IF I start worrying about mistakes, THEN I will say to myself, ‘Good performance last time. I can do it again!’” Participants in the self-talk group were instructed to offer themselves encouragement: “I will stay calm,” (arousal-control), “I can beat my best score” (outcome), or “I will focus completely on each number I need to find” (instructional). 

The participants then played a second round of the game. After they finished, they watched their videos again, then played a third round. Every round was followed by an emotional check-in survey to see how they felt about themselves and the game. 

The researchers analyzed all the game scores from all three rounds. They found that scores in every group improved as the game went on, but that the most improvement was seen in participants from 4 of the 12 groups: imagery-outcome, imagery-process, self-talk-outcome, self-talk-process. Of these, the self-talk-process message—“I can react quicker this time”—most effectively boosted people’s speed, scores, and enjoyment of the game. 

“A key message stemming from the finding of this study is that delivering interventions online could help people perform and feel better,” the authors write. 

They acknowledge that their study had some limitations. For one thing, all the volunteers were participating at home, which gave the researchers zero control over the experimental environment. Additionally, they weren’t able to measure how good people were at internalizing the messages Johnson taught them. Some people are naturally better at visualizing and logical thought than others, which would have affected their scores. The motivational techniques were only tested on one computer game, and with no follow-up, the researchers couldn't tell how long the positive effects lasted.

Lastly, they note, “…whilst the effects of the selected interventions show desirable effects, this could partly be explained by the persuasive effects of receiving the intervention from Michael Johnson, an Olympic champion who is both a credible person and known advocate of mental training. An interesting comparison would be to investigate the effects of the intervention when delivered by a less-esteemed source.”

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