Feeling Psyched Out? Tell Yourself You're Great

Getting "psyched out" actually hurts your performance

November 7, 2019 

It's all in your head

Have you ever wondered why a sports team with what appears to be superior talent gets beaten by an underdog team on a roll? Or why a politician that is lower in the public opinion polls suddenly starts climbing and even beating the front runner as new polling data is released? Or why a rather average restaurant or store that gets a good review and generates buzz is suddenly appealing, when the famed store or restaurant around the corner seems to lose its luster? It could be a challenger is simply at the top of their game. But a new study suggests that in many cases it’s all about psychology.

In an article published by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Duke, New York University and the London Business School report finding that facing people who appear to have positive momentum has a way of getting inside your head. Even if they aren’t objectively better than you and you acknowledge that, their rise can feel unstoppable. Yep, being “psyched out” is a real thing.

The study looked at a variety of sports and other domains. For example, the researchers analyzed 60,000 tennis matches and found that as an opponent gains momentum, a player’s chance of winning dropped from 52%-to-38%. And it turns out the reason is not just that an opponent gaining momentum is improving their game or business. The reason is more often that the dominant player expected an opponent with momentum to keep winning. In short, the player seemed to anticipate their own failure.

“It’s putting the rules of physics into our social lives,” explains Hemant Kakkar, PhD, Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at Duke and the lead author of the study. “We learn from Newton’s Laws in physics that objects in motion tend to stay in motion. People tend to extrapolate that to assume that people who are winning awards and gaining attention will continue to do that.”

But there is also a flip side. The study also found that if you are feeling the pressure of being surrounded by a bunch of rising stars at work, all is not lost. Researchers looked at the best way to counteract that “psyched out” feeling. When participants were told that a clerical error may have caused an opponent’s momentum measurements to be wrong, the participant felt less threatened and lowered their expectations for that opponent ‘s future rank.

In other words, to avoid being psyched out by an opponent’s momentum, tell yourself that you’re good also, or tell yourself that the other person is actually not that great.

—Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.