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Telling Yourself 'I Think I Can' May Help Your Performance

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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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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Why Reading Aloud Helps You Remember More Information
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If you're trying to commit something to memory, you shouldn't just read the same flashcard over and over. You should read it aloud, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The research, published in the journal Memory, finds that the act of reading and speaking text aloud is a more effective way to remember information than reading it silently or just hearing it read aloud. The dual effect of both speaking and hearing helps encode the memory more strongly, the study reports. The new research builds on previous work on the so-called production effect by Waterloo psychologist Colin MacLeod, who is also one of the current paper's authors.  

The current study tested 95 college students over the course of two semesters, asking them to remember as many words as possible from a list of 160 nouns. At one session, they read a list of words into a microphone, then returned two weeks later for a follow-up. In some situations, the participants read the words presented to them aloud, while in others, they either heard their own recorded voice played back to them, heard recordings of others reading the words, or read the words silently to themselves. Afterward, they were tested to see how much they remembered from the list.

The participants remembered more words if they had read them aloud compared to all other conditions, even the one where people heard their own voices reading the words. However, hearing your own voice on its own does seem to have some effect: it was a better memory tool for participants than hearing someone else speak, perhaps because people are good at remembering things that involve them. (Or maybe, the researchers suggest, it's just because people find it so bizarre to hear their own recorded voice that it becomes a salient memory.)

The findings "suggest that production is memorable in part because it includes a distinctive, self-referential component," the researchers write. "This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering: We do it ourselves, and we do it in our own voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us to remember."

The message is loud and clear: If you want to remember, you should both read it and speak it aloud.

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