kitchen table math, the sequel: Yerkes Dodson strikes again

Friday, August 6, 2010

Yerkes Dodson strikes again

THE Boston Red Sox haven’t given their fans much to cheer about this summer so we’ve had to take our pleasure where we could find it, for example, by watching Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees struggle to hit his 600th career home run — again and again and again.

Rodriguez hit his 599th home run on July 22, bringing himself and his fans to the brink of celebration. And then, for 12 long days, he not only failed to drive the ball out of the park and into the history books, he also went hitless for 17 consecutive at-bats. This wasn’t the first time Rodriguez has stood at the precipice, and then stood there some more: after hitting his 499th home run in 2007, he came to the plate an excruciating 28 times before finally hitting his 500th.

What made all this so frustrating for New Yorkers (and so delicious for Bostonians) was that everyone felt certain that Rodriguez would have slammed several homers in the past two weeks if only they hadn’t mattered so much. Watching him struggle to break the numerical barrier was like watching a man frozen with fear on the last step of a tall ladder: we knew, and he knew, that the last step was exactly the same as all the steps before it — so why couldn’t he just take it?

One of the ironies of human psychology is that desperately wanting something can make attaining that thing all the more difficult. When stakes go up, performance often goes down. In one study, subjects practiced sinking a putt and got better as they went along — better, that is, until the experimenter offered them a cash reward for their next shot, at which point their performance took a nosedive.

This is because we pay close attention to what we’re doing when what we’re doing matters, and though close attention is helpful when our task is novel or complex, it is positively destructive when our task is simple and well practiced. Golfers in another study were told either to take their time and think about their stroke or to step up and swing as quickly as possible. Although novice golfers did better when they took their time, expert golfers did worse.

The lesson from the laboratory is clear: thinking about tasks that don’t require thought isn’t just pointless, it’s debilitating. It may be wise to watch our fingers when we’re doing surgery or shaving the family dog, but not when we’re driving or typing, because once our brains learn to do something automatically they don’t appreciate interference. The moment we start thinking about when to step on the clutch or hit the alt key, our once-seamless performance becomes slow, clumsy or impossible.

The Weight at the Plate
by Daniel Gilbert
Published: August 4, 2010

Yerkes Dodson at Wikipedia
Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson (1908)
First published in Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.

1 comment:

Allison said...

The reason behind this lesson is that what we are aware of consciously is simply not enough to account for our success.

And in a nutshell, this is why teaching is so difficult.

Ask expert pilots what it is that they do in circumstance X to keep a plane well controlled, and they will tell you *the wrong information*. They'll fly the plane correctly, but what they think they do, and what they do, are loosely connected. Same for sports experts. Same for surgeons. We "forget" what we do when we've learned to that level of expertise. We have chunked so many of the procedures we act on, have chunked so many decisions that we simply can't recall them properly.

As a result, precious few of us are able to even tell another person how an expert does something, let alone remember what it is that a novice doesn't yet know and how we'd get from there to expert level.