Monday, 25 November 2013

Haste makes waste, but not if you're neurotic

The faster people do things, the more mistakes they make. Also known as the speed-accuracy trade-off, this rule is considered by many fundamental to human behaviour. Not so, according to sports psychologist James Bell and his colleagues. They've authored a new paper that suggests people who score higher on the personality trait of neuroticism make more accurate judgments the faster they respond.

One hundred and ninety-six teenage male cricketers, all members of regional academies, took part in the study. They watched six clips of footage recorded from behind bowlers during the Twenty20 World Cup in England in 2009. Just as the bowler released the ball, each clip was frozen and remained visible for half a second - the approximate amount of time that a batsman has to decide how to react to a delivery.

After the freeze-frame disappeared, the participants pressed one of two keyboard keys as fast as possible to indicate whether they judged it was better to attempt to hit a single run, or to go for a "six" (a boundary shot similar to a home run in baseball). Four qualified cricket coaches agreed on the optimum response for each clip. The participants also completed a neuroticism scale, measured by their agreement with statements like "I worry about things" and "I get stressed out easily."

The key finding is that for low scorers on neuroticism, the more quickly they responded on average, the poorer their judgments tended to be, yet for high scorers on neuroticism the opposite was true. "The most parsimonious explanation," the researchers said, "… is that individuals with high levels of neuroticism tend to have a stimulus-driven attentional orientation, which means they are likely to react automatically to environmental stimuli (particularly if it is threat related) resulting in faster and more accurate responses in the context of the current task."

It's an intriguing result, but the study leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, if highly neurotic people perform optimally when they respond fast, why did some of them choose to respond slowly? A major weakness of the study, acknowledged by Bell and his team, is the lack of realism. Pressing a correct keyboard key is a long way from swinging a cricket bat. Moreover, the average response time in the study was 3.1 seconds - indicative of conscious decision-making - yet as we heard, real-life batsmen have just half a second to react.

"Although more research is needed to determine whether the moderating effect of personality variables on speed and accuracy extends to real-life settings and other populations (e.g. females), we propose that haste does not necessarily make waste for individuals with high levels of neuroticism," Bell and his colleagues concluded.


James J. Bella, Lauren Mawn, and Rosemary Poynor (2013). Haste makes waste, but not for all: The speed-accuracy trade-off does not apply to neurotics. Psychology of Sport and Exercise DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.07.001

--Further reading--
Anxiously attached people are ace at poker and lie detection.
The advantage of having an anxiously attached person on your team.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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