Mistakes support skills

Have you noticed that the elite sports people never come off the field or court and say, “Well, that was pretty much perfect”? At their most effusive they will say, “I was pretty much on my game today but there are still a few things I need to work on”. Is this false modesty or is it a genuine perspective that is indicative of a champion’s attitude to their skills? According to new research the latter may be the case.

For the research subjects were told to push a joystick quickly toward a red dot on a computer screen. However, the subjects’ hands were placed under the screen, where they could not see them, and their starting point was shown on the screen as a blue dot. As the volunteers moved the joystick toward the red dot, the joystick was rigged to suddenly push to the left. The subjects had to practise until they could move the blue dot straight to and past the red dot by compensating for the leftward push coming from within the joystick. So the subjects had to learn to apply just the right amount of pressure toward the right.

Once the subjects had mastered the task the researchers made a change without letting the participants know. One group had a stiff spring added to their joystick that would guide the user straight to the target, but would also measure the amount of rightward force the subject was applying. To the subjects, it appeared that they were now doing the task perfectly every time. Gradually they stopped pushing to the right, apparently forgetting what they had learned.

Another group not only had the added the spring, but also the feedback on the screen was manipulated to show not what they were actually doing but to show results similar to earlier efforts. So the volunteers weren’t seeing the errors they were actually making, but feedback that looked convincingly like errors they might have made. This group continued to do the task as they had learned, applying the right amount of force to the joystick hundreds of times.

This is all to do with how learning and “motor memories” happen. Motor memories are the skills that you learn that allow you to perform everyday tasks lifting a mug of coffee or closing a door. All of these skills require amounts of force appropriate to the situation. In essence what happens when you get false reinforcement of perfection in your task performance is that your skill levels deteriorate as your brain jettisons the need to attend to and improve your skills.

This is possibly why top level performers are those who don’t see the perfection in what they do and it also has implications for how we reinforce the performance of children. It seems if you want to maintain skill levels false perceptions of perfection are damaging and recognising errors is essential; perhaps that is why they are called must-takes.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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