I participating in a Google Hangout this morning about Gamification that arose from my post about the “Dark Side” of gamification. The six participants were brilliant and it was a great way to spend an hour this morning. I wanted to follow up with a blog post because there was something mentioned at the very end that we didn’t have time to talk about in detail but I think is critically important.
The topic was anxiety and how anxiety affects performance. For those of you who know me or who have read my blogs regularly, you know that for any topic that I find interesting, most questions about it can be answered with “it depends.” I think that is exceptionally true for the relationship between anxiety and performance. So here are some thoughts.
First, there are a lot of different sources of anxiety:
1. We can be under time pressure. The anxiety can be caused by a requirement that we do something faster than we want to or previously thought we needed to.
2. We can be under performance pressure. The anxiety can be caused by a requirement that we do something to a higher level of effectiveness than we want or previously thought we needed to.
3. We can be under process pressure. The anxiety can be caused by a requirement to do something in a more efficient or sophisticated way than we want or previously thought we needed to.
4. We can be under creativity pressure. The anxiety can be caused by a requirement to do something fundamentally different than we have ever done before. Solve a new and unfamiliar kind of problem.
Second, there are different consequences of the action:
A. There might be a benefit/bonus/reward for achieving the new, more advanced requirement.
B. There might be a penalty for not achieving the new, more advanced requirement.
C. There might be social pressure – we will be letting down our team/community/family for not achieving the new, more advanced requirement
Third, there are different levels of visibility of the success/failure
i) Our success/failure may only be known to ourselves and perhaps the person who added the pressure.
ii) Our success/failure may only be known to the team/community impacted by the success/failure.
iii) Our success/failure may be publicly available, although only through some effort.
iv) Our success/failure may be publicly broadcast – on the nightly cable news or the next Twitter Trend.
Fourth, there are individual differences.
a) There is the prevention/promotion-focus dimension. Some people are motivated by the opportunity to achieve something new or challenging (promotion-focus). Some people are risk-averse and prefer to avoid anything in which they might fail.
b) There is perceived locus of control. Some people think that they have the ability to make a difference and overcome challenges that they are facing by using their personal strengths and abilities. Some people think that outside influences have too strong an influence on the results, so no matter how hard they try they can have too little an impact on the likelihood of success.
Fifth, there are domain differences.
x) each person might have a particular risk, efficacy, or locus of control profile in one area (e.g. sports) but a different profile in another area (mental acuity).
Sixth, there are task requirement differences
y) some tasks require brute force (physical or mental) exertion such as running faster or rote memorization
z) Some tasks require more creative and diverse action (physical or mental) such as finding a new way to explain an old idea or a way to tie your shoes with only one hand.
So if you cross each of these dimensions, you get 4x3x4x2x4x2 ~ 800 different situations, each of them might have a different mediating effect on the relationship between increasing the pressure and the resulting performance.
There is some evidence from cognitive neuroscience and from empirical field research that brute force activities benefit from pressure whereas creative activities are harmed by it.
There is also some evidence that promotion-focused individuals and internal locus-of-control individuals benefit from increased pressure whereas prevention-focused individuals and external locus-of-control individuals are harmed by it.
There is also some evidence that time-pressure can increase performance but quality-pressure can harm performance.
But with 800 different situations, there is clearly a lot more we need to learn about these relationships.