The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Big Goals Matter

The metaphorical “hole” in the putting green of life should be seen as large.

Success in golf depends less on strength of body than upon strength of mind and character. — Arnold Palmer

I recently read an interesting research article by Jessica Witt, Sally Linkenauger, and Dennis Proffitt (2012). These investigators were interested in the role played by perception in athletic performance and specifically in putting, one of the most difficult athletic skills to master, for the expert golfer as well as the novice.

The hypothesis tested was that putting would be improved if the hole looked bigger to the person who was trying to put a golf ball in it. The size of a golf hole is of course standardized—4.25” in diameter—world-wide, but the researchers were interested in the effects of a golf hole that was perceived to be bigger than it was.

Anecdotal support for this hypothesis abounds, from a variety of sports and games, not only golf but also darts, baseball, football, and basketball. When a player is doing well, the target “looks” bigger. For example, in March 2012, basketball player Aaron Bright of Stanford University, after a career-high 29 points, observed, “I didn't have to work hard for shots. When I shot the last three at the end of the [first] half, it felt like the basket was the size of the ocean.”

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Wiit and her colleagues created a putting green in their laboratory and made use of the Ebbinghaus illusion (see Figure 1) to vary how big the hole* seemed. A downward projector was rigged so that it surrounded the hole with images of either small circles or large circles. In keeping with what is known about this illusion, the hole surrounded by small circles was perceived by their participants as bigger. And here is the punchline of the research: When participants attempted ten putts from about ten feet away, they did better with the “bigger” hole, on average sinking 1.75 putts versus 1.0 putts.

Figure 1. Ebbinghaus Illusion

So, size does matter for goal attainment, and an important qualification is that it is perceived size that matters. A second qualification is provided by another condition in the Witt et al. study in which participants putted at an objectively larger hole (about 4” in diameter); here no effects of the created illusion were evident for performance. Perhaps the attempts to create an illusion failed, which means that there are limits to this phenomenon when the target is large enough for most participants to succeed.

You may or may not be a golfer. That’s okay. The point I want to draw out from this research is metaphorical. Within limits, the apparent size of our target goals makes it more or less easy to achieve them. Even when objective goals are identical, perceived goals vary in their ease or difficulty.

This blog is about the good life, so the point is that if our goal is to live well, we should see this goal as attainable—i.e., we should see the metaphorical “hole” in the putting green of life as a big one**. Indeed, exaggeration may even help. Our confidence will be bolstered, and our likelihood of actually sinking the putt, as it were, may be increased.

Here we see a contribution of positive psychology research to the greater good. When positive psychologists conclude that most people are happy, that most people have strengths of character, and that most people are resilient, these conclusions—when disseminated to the general public—make the good life seem attainable. And then it will be. That said, we should not settle for life goals that are objectively easy.

Stroke away, dear reader, whether or not you are at the tee, in the fairway, or on the green. Or even in the rough.

*For reasons not explained in the research report, the actual diameter of the hole was quite small—only 2”—but my guess is that the researchers wanted to create a challenging task within the physical confines of their laboratory.

**Research shows that hard and specific goals are the most likely to improve performance (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Lathjam, 1981). However, even a hard (difficult) goal needs to be seen as attainable.

References

Locke, E. A., Shaw, K. N., Saari, L. M., & Latham, G. P. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969–1980.  Psychological Bulletin, 90, 125-152.

Witt, J. K., Linkenauger, S. A., & Proffitt, D. R. (2012). Get me out of this slump! Visual illusions improve sports performance. Psychological Science, 23, 397-399.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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