Want to score more points when you’re playing hoops? Think about your impending doom; apparently doing so can boost performance by 40 percent. That’s the amazingly morbid takeaway from a new study out of the University of Arizona.
In the first of two studies, 31 participants—male college students who like playing basketball and care about their performance in the sport, but weren’t part of a formal college team—played a pair of one-on-one basketball games with one of the study authors (who posed as a participant.) In between the two games—both of which lasted about seven minutes—participants were given questionnaires to complete.
Some participants randomly filled out queries and prompts about death (like, “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you,” and this jarring one, “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.”) Meanwhile, other players were given questions and prompts pertaining to basketball (they read, “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of playing basketball arouses in you,” and, “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you play basketball.”)
After, researchers had the basketball players go through some “delay tasks” so death thoughts weren’t fresh on the conscious mind, but still present enough to sink in. Interestingly, those questioned about death improved their personal performance by 40 percent in the second game, while those asked about basketball saw no improvements.
In the second study, participants completed a basket-shooting challenge in which some were randomly presented with a more subtle reminder of death: one of the study authors wore a black t-shirt with a large white skull, made up of several iterations of the word “death.”
One at a time, the participants were brought onto the court. The study author gave a 30-second talk on the competition’s rules, wearing the skull t-shirt in front of half the men and zipped his jacket up for the other half. For the one-minute basketball challenge, participants could score 1 point for a layup, 2 points for a basket from the free-throw line, and 3 points for one from the three-point line. The men weren’t allowed to take the same shot back-to-back; they had to keep moving. What’s more, they were scored by another study author who didn’t know who saw the shirt.
Again, those with death on their mind (who saw the shirt) outperformed the others by about 30 percent. “They took more shots, better shots, and they hustled more and ran faster,” study co-lead researcher Uri Lifshin said in a press release.
So, why would death cause such a boom in basketball performance, and what does it mean for you?
“Terror management theory talks about striving for self-esteem and why we want to accomplish things in our lives and be successful,” Lifshin said. “Everybody has their own thing in which they invest that is their legacy and symbolic immortality.” For some people, that thing is a sport.
What’s more, your subconscious tries to find ways to push away thoughts of death so the idea of it isn’t all-consuming. “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,” Lifshin adds. So, by performing well in basketball, the subjects may have subconsciously been seeking to raise their self-esteem by accomplishing something they saw as meaningful—and be triumphant in some aspect of life that makes them feel better about the prospect of death.
And this finding doesn’t just apply to basketball. Lifshin and his team believe this can work for any man or woman motivated to perform well in sports. If you don’t? Well, you garner less self-esteem from athletic accomplishments, so winning and losing doesn’t hold as much significance. But if you’re a die-hard athlete, then you better start thinking some dark thoughts.