The professor and the soccer hooligan

I was listening to a podcast from RadioLab and heard about this fascinating study. They set up a challenging mini golf course. But before each of the subjects played, they were told "this is a test of your physical intelligence." The result - the white subjects on average played four strokes better over the course than the black subjects. Doesn't sound that surprising - golf clubs are often exclusive and expensive, maybe more whites play golf than blacks, maybe mini golf isn't a typical African-American family outing.

Here's where it gets interesting though. They made one small change to the experiment. This time they told the subjects "this is a test of your natural athletic ability." The result was startlingly different.

The second time around the black subjects did about four strokes better than the white subjects. Incredible - how could that one small sentence really have that big an impact?

I read a similar study in Blink, an interesting book by Malcolm Gladwell, where efore giving a test they had one group write a paragraph about being university professor, and the second group write a paragraph about being a soccer hooligan. The first group performed significantly better than the second.

I was reflecting on this when I had a powerful insight. I realised that I believed the research, but I also believed it wouldn't apply to me. I'm a smart guy, writing a paragraph about a soccer hooligan isn't really going to make me dumber. And while I'm not the greatest mini golfer in the world, my psyche is not so weak that one sentence is going to throw me off my game.

But of course it does apply to me - it applies to everyone. Even you. It's just completely outside our awareness. The white golfers didn't know they were playing below their potential, and they weren't aware that some subconscious belief about not being a natural athlete had somehow been triggered which impacted their performance.

And I got to thinking about my work - before I start my day, or go into a meeting, in my subconscious am I the university professor or the soccer hooligan? What are the triggers that prime my subconscious one way or the other. And to be honest I have no idea.

I suspect that I have a core subconscious belief or concern that I'm not good enough, and things that trigger that would reduce my performance. Things like arriving late, sitting down at a messy desk, not having my day organised. But really, I'm just guessing.

I'd love to know what you think. What turns you into a soccer hooligan? (Or at least what triggers your subconscious and reduces your performance?)