Would you say a sportswoman is more or less likely than usual to win her next game if she won her last game? What about if she had won her last two games? If, like most people, you think her chances of future success are greater following a series of wins, you're demonstrating your belief in 'psychological momentum' – the idea of being on a roll, or on song. Now Keith Markman and colleagues have shown the way we think about psychological momentum is akin to the way we think about the physical momentum of objects.
One study showed that we believe psychological momentum given more 'mass' will have a greater effect on performance. Some students were told a basketball team had previously beaten their arch rivals in a hard-fought local derby. These students predicted the team's chances of winning their next league match to be much greater than did other students who were simply told the team had won their last match. The researchers said the context of an intense local derby gave the impression of the team's psychological momentum having greater 'mass'.
Imagine pushing a heavy weight along the ground but then losing your momentum. Another study showed we think progress will be harder after we've had psychological momentum but then lost it. Students were told a woman called Jane was working on a research paper before being interrupted by a phone call. Students who were told Jane had been focused and on a roll before the call, rated her chances of completing the paper after the phone call as far poorer than did other students who'd been told Jane was simply working at a steady pace prior to the interruption.
“We hope these studies stimulate further attempts to understand and investigate this fascinating psychological phenomenon”, the researchers said.
Markman, K.D. & Guenther, C.L. (2007). Psychological momentum: Intuitive physics and naïve beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 800-812.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.