Thinking of death motivates, helps enhance performance: Study

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Published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.


Thoughts of death, mortality could be used as a powerful motivator, not just for sports but for many different performance-related activities, according to a new study.

Researchers say the study on a group of basketball players has found they played better if they thought about death before taking to the court, reported The Telegraph.

The study was published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, and sought to investigate the effects of Terror Management Theory.

Study co-leader Uri Lifshin of the University of Arizona told Medical News Today: “Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful. Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.”

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Lifshin added: “Your subconscious tries to find ways to defeat death, to make death not a problem, and the solution is self-esteem. Self-esteem gives you a feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that you have a chance for immortality, that you have meaning, that you’re not just a sack of meat.”

In one experiment, researchers asked basketball players to complete one of two questionnaires before playing a short game of one-on-one basketball. One of the questionnaires asked them about their feelings about death, and the other asked about their feelings about basketball.

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Those who completed the ‘death’ questionnaire showed a 40 per cent improvement in their personal performance.

In another experiment participants were instructed to take a one-minute basket-shooting challenge, by a researcher who was wearing a t-shirt with a white skull on, along with other visual signifiers of mortality – displayed to only half of the participants.

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Those who’d seen the ‘death’ t-shirt performed approximately 30 per cent better than those who hadn’t, the study noted, according to the Telegraph.

Study co-leader Colin Zestcott said: “This is a potentially untapped way to motivate athletes but also perhaps to motivate people in other realms. Outside of sports, we think that this has implications for a range of different performance-related tasks, like people’s jobs, so we’re excited about the future of this research.”