Choking is a phenomenon where an individual exhibits performance decrements under pressure despite their expertise and motivation to do well (Baumeister, 1984). It can manifest under many conditions, such as competition, monetary rewards, and the presence of audience members. Previous research has shown that undergoing non-dominant hand contractions (NDHCs) has been beneficial in minimising performance decrements under pressure in right-handed athletes. This is explained through hemisphere-specific priming, where exercising the left-hand leads to right-hemispheric activation, consequently aiding visuospatial processes and motor task performance. Hemisphere-specific priming also suppresses left-hemispheric activation, reducing language processing activated through pressure. However, a majority of the choking literature focuses on sports-based settings and less on everyday situations affecting the general population. Therefore, the present study aimed to investigate if the beneficial effects of NDHC would generalise to the latter.
Research Questions / Hypotheses
This study investigated the after-effects of NDHCs on performance in a simple computer-based motor task performed under time pressure. In the first experiment, we expected that performing NDHCs, compared to sitting quietly, prior to the completion of the Bullseye task under time pressure will protect performance leading to a smaller increase in error for right-handed participants. In the second experiment, in addition to time pressure, competitive pressure was included in the form of a leader-board and a monetary prize for the best-performing participant. As experiment completion was supervised through Zoom, we suspected it would also have added monitoring pressure. Similar to the first experiment, we expected that compared to sitting quietly, performing NDHCs before completing the Bullseye Task under time, competitive, and monitoring pressure would protect performance, leading to a smaller increase in error for right-handed participants.
In the first experiment, 116 REP participants completed the study. In the second experiment, 12 REP participants completed the study.
All participants had to complete the Bullseye task (Reuss et al., 2015), a computer-based activity that requires participants to make a mouse click on an on-screen bullseye target, on a speed-accuracy trade-off paradigm. The bullseye target would appear either on the upper-left or upper-right corners of the screen, determined randomly on each trial with an equal number of both locations. Participants were either given 750ms (speed block) or unlimited time (accuracy block) to click on the middle of the bullseye target. Participants were still required to make a response even when the bullseye stimulus was removed at the 750ms mark. Response times and error scores were recorded regardless of whether the deadline was met. Participants were also required to complete the Mental Readiness Form-Likert, a three-domain state anxiety measure, before and after each Instruction (i.e. speed or accuracy) block. In the first experiment, participants had to complete one accuracy block on the Bullseye task before completing a speed block. In the speed block, participants were randomly assigned to sit quietly or squeeze a ball of socks with their left-hand (i.e. NDHCs) for 30 seconds between the practice and experimental trials. Prior to that, participants were told that their assigned activity is known to improve task performance in high-pressure tasks. In the second experiment, participants had to complete one Accuracy and two Speed blocks, with the accuracy block occurring first, the speed block without experimental manipulation next, then the speed block with manipulations (i.e. NDHCs vs. sitting quietly) last. Before the first speed block, participants were informed about monetary rewards for the best-performing participant and a leader-board displaying their performance.
To examine the effects of NDHCs on performance, we conducted a Bayesian Between-Within 2 Contraction Condition (NDHCs vs Sit Quietly) × 2 Instruction Condition (Accuracy vs Speed) ANOVA for both mean RTs and error scores using JASP in the first experiment (JASP Team, 2020). For the second experiment, we conducted a Bayesian Between-Within 2 Contraction Condition (NDHCs vs Sit Quietly) × 3 Instruction Condition (Accuracy vs. 1st Speed vs. 2nd Speed) ANOVA for both mean RTs and error scores using JASP (JASP Team, 2020). In both experiments, the ANOVAs revealed extremely strong evidence for a main effect of Instruction for both RTs and error scores. As expected, this reflects higher error scores and lower RTs in Speed versus Accuracy conditions. However, evidence in both experiments pointed against a Contraction × Instruction interaction effect, suggesting that the increase in error scores and decrease in RTs did not differ between participants who underwent NDHCs or sat quietly. These findings occurred despite increasing state anxiety over all three domains in the two experiments, as analysed by Bayesian One-Sided Paired Samples t-tests and Bayesian Repeated Measures ANOVA in the first and second experiment respectively.
This study provided insight into how NDHCs are less effective in protecting performance on simple motor tasks as compared to sport-based tasks. Participants continued to choke under pressure regardless of whether they performed NDHCs or sat quietly. This was observed when all three assumptions for choking were met, supporting the idea that findings in the present study reflect a true effect and is not a consequence of lacking pressure, expertise, or motivation to do well. Due to methodological differences, our findings also suggested that perceived pressures became a source of distraction instead of inducing self-focus, rendering NDHCs ineffective as an intervention. These findings contribute to the goal of finding accessible interventions to choking under pressure in everyday situations. Results were communicated in the form of an honours thesis and fourth-year conference presentation.