In a previous study, Jessica Witt, professor of psychology at Purdue University and director of the Action-Modulated Perception Lab, had proven that the success of athletes changed how they perceived action; for example, a tennis ball will look larger to a successful tennis player, and smaller to a struggling tennis player. At a recent March Madness basketball game, however, Witt noticed that noisy fans were never able to distract top athletes from making free throws. This observation led her to question whether the inverse of her latest study could also be true. Could affecting the visual perception of an athlete induce them to play better, or worse?
In order to test this hypothesis, Witt projected dark circles around a standard-size golf hole on a synthesized putting green and asked 36 volunteers to view the hole from a few feet away. By manipulating the circles around the hole, Witt could make the hole appear larger or smaller. Witt found that most volunteers putted successfully when the hole appeared larger, and missed more often when the hole seemed smaller, even though the actual size of the hole never changed.
Published online in the journal Psychological Science, Witt’s experiment suggests that neural pathways for perception and action may overlap for certain tasks that require physical technique, such as golf. If this is true, then an individual’s perception of the playing field will influence how they perform, and manipulating that playing field could make tasks become easier, or harder.
Witt plans to assess the confidence levels of participants in her follow-up work, and in the meantime is working to create on-field illusions that could make field-goals and basketball hoops look larger to the home team, and smaller to the visiting team. “We can’t, at the moment, project images down from the ceiling,” Witt explains, “But I’m not saying it couldn’t potentially be done in the future.”