When two athletes are the same size and strength, what makes one better than the other? In many sports, the best athletes are the ones who can react more quickly to game situations than others. Are they just generally better at focusing their attention where it needs to be? Or have they learned some skill set specific to the game at hand?
Attention researchers have made some efforts to learn if athletes perform better in visual tasks than non-athletes, but the results have been mixed. In some experiments, athletes react faster than non-athletes, but in others, there is no discernible difference. For example, when a central arrow points to one of four surrounding boxes, and then an object quickly flashes in one of the squares, athletes are faster than non-athletes to identify the object when it flashes where the arrow was not pointing. But in experiments where different types of cues were used, no difference was found between athletes and non-athletes.
Research by C.L. Folk and others in 1992 found that participants can learn to ignore cues that are different from the objects they are identifying. So Jim McAuliffe reasoned the type of cue being used is critical for determining whether athletes are better at attention tasks.
Following Folk’s team, McAuliffe designed stimuli that tested reaction time for two different tasks. In the first task, participants viewed four gray squares surrounding a central square. After a second or two, a set of four dots flashed around one of the four squares. Then either a plus sign or an equals sign flashed in either the same square or a different square. Participants had to identify the sign as quickly as possible. I’ve recreated this task here:
You’ll see that the task goes quickly — you might need to refresh your screen a couple times to see it.
In a separate task, four symbols appeared, and participants were required to identify the red one. In this task, cue dots appeared around all four squares, but one of the squares was surrounded by red dots.
But McAuliffe also created hybrid tasks, where the cue was different from the object. For example, participants might be asked to identify the red symbol when the dots appeared around just one square:
Or they were asked to identify the single object that appeared, when dots appeared around all four squares:
In these last two tasks, the cues were different from the attention task, so Folk’s research would suggest that the cue would not affect performance.
These four tasks were performed by 12 college volleyball players and 12 non-athletes. They were told that the cue would not be predictive of where the object appeared. However, 25 percent of the time, the cue and the target did indeed appear on the same square. So McAuliffe measured the difference in reaction times from when cues predicted the target to when they did not. Here are the results:
When the cue and the target were different, both athletes and non-athletes showed no difference in reaction times between non-predictive and predictive cues. But when the cue and the target were the same, athletes improved significantly more than non-athletes when the cues predicted the location of the target. This suggests that athletes are better able to focus their attention than non-athletes.
Interestingly, athletes overall showed slower reaction times than non-athletes. McAuliffe suggests this might be due to their heightened attentiveness — that athletes are more susceptible to feints or other deceptive moves than non-athletes. Could this be why, sometimes, superior teams have difficulty beating obviously less-talented opponents?
McAuliffe, J. (2004). Differences in attentional set between athletes and nonathletes. Journal of General Psychology, 131(4), 426-437.