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Anxiety, Ego Depletion, and Performance

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Alex Bertrams
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Previous research has reliably found that self-control strength moderates the anxiety-performance relationship for cognitive and perceptual-motor tasks that involve executive functioning. In the present preregistered experiment (N = 200; https://aspredicted.org/a775h.pdf), we investigated whether the interaction of anxiety and self-control also predicts creative flexibility performance. According to the Attentional Control Theory, anxiety can impair executive functioning. In the case that creative flexibility relies on executive functions, anxiety should therefore interfere with creative flexibility performance. However, self-control strength has been demonstrated to serve as a buffer against the negative effects of anxiety on executive functioning. Therefore, we assumed that there will be a negative relationship between anxiety and creative flexibility performance, and that this negative relationship would be more pronounced for participants who are low compared to high in momentary self-control strength. Analogous to the previous studies, we manipulated the participants' self-control strength (ego depletion vs. no depletion) and subsequently induced a potentially threatening test situation. The participants then completed a measure of their state anxiety and a standardized test of creative flexibility. Contrary to our expectation, self-control strength, state anxiety, and their interaction did not predict creative flexibility performance. Complementary Bayesian hypothesis testing revealed strong support for the null hypothesis. Therefore, we conclude that, at least under certain conditions, creative flexibility performance may be unrelated to resource-dependent executive functions.
Alex Bertrams
added 3 research items
It has been repeatedly demonstrated that athletes in a state of ego depletion do not perform up to their capabilities. We assume that autonomous self-control exertion, in contrast to forced self-control exertion, can serve as a buffer against ego depletion effects and can help individuals to show superior performance. In the present study, we applied a between-subjects design to test the assumption that autonomously exerted self-control is less detrimental for subsequent self-control performance in sports than is forced self-control exertion. In a primary self-control task, the level of autonomy was manipulated through specific instructions, resulting in three experimental conditions (autonomy-supportive: n = 19; neutral: n = 19; controlling: n = 19). As a secondary self-control task, participants executed a series of tennis serves under high-pressure conditions, and performance accuracy served as our dependent variable. As expected, a one-way between-groups ANOVA revealed that participants from the autonomy-supportive condition performed significantly better under pressure than did participants from the controlling condition. These results further highlight the importance of autonomy-supportive instructions in order to enable athletes to show superior achievements in high-pressure situations. Practical implications for the coach–athlete relationship are discussed.
In the present study we investigated whether ego depletion negatively affects attention regulation under pressure in sports by assessing participants’ dart throwing performance and accompanying gaze behavior. According to the strength model of self-control the most important aspect of self-control is attention regulation. As higher levels of state anxiety are associated with impaired attention regulation we chose a mixed design with ego depletion (yes vs. no) as between-subjects and anxiety level (high vs. low) as within-subjects factor. Participants performed a perceptual-motor task requiring selective attention, namely, dart throwing. In line with our expectations, depleted participants in the high anxiety condition performed worse and displayed a shorter final fixation on bull’s eye, demonstrating that when one is depleted attention regulation under pressure cannot be maintained. This is the first study that directly supports the general assumption that ego depletion is a major factor in influencing attention regulation under pressure.
Alex Bertrams
added 3 research items
In the present article, we argue that it may be fruitful to incorporate the ideas of the strength model of self-control into the core assumptions of the well-established attentional control theory (ACT). In ACT, it is assumed that anxiety automatically leads to attention disruption and increased distractibility, which may impair subsequent cognitive or perceptual-motor performance, but only if individuals do not have the ability to counteract this attention disruption. However, ACT does not clarify which process determines whether one can volitionally regulate attention despite experiencing high levels of anxiety. In terms of the strength model of self-control, attention regulation can be viewed as a self-control act depending on the momentary availability of self-control strength. We review literature that has revealed that self-control strength moderates the anxiety–performance relationship, discuss how to integrate these two theoretical models, and offer practical recommendations of how to counteract negative anxiety effects.
We tested the assumption that active relaxation following an ego-depletion task counteracts the negative effects of ego depletion on subsequent performance under evaluative pressure. N = 39 experienced basketball players were randomly assigned to a relaxation condition or to a control condition, and then performed a series of free-throws at two points of measurement (T1: baseline vs T2: after working on a depleting task and either receiving active relaxation or a simple break). The results demonstrated that performance remained constant in the relaxation condition, whereas it significantly decreased in the control condition. The findings are in line with the notion that active relaxation leads to a quicker recovery from ego depletion.
The detrimental effects of anxiety on cognitive performance have been explained by the activation of worry, which detracts attention away from the task at hand. However, recent research showed that anxiety is related to performance only when self-control capacity is low (i.e., ego depletion). The present work extends these findings by showing that activation of worry interferes with cognitive performance more strongly when self-control capacity is momentarily depleted as compared to intact. After manipulations of self-control capacity and worry activation, 70 undergraduates completed a standardized intelligence test. As expected, activation of worry was associated with poorer performance when self-control capacity was depleted, but had no effect on performance when self-control capacity was intact. The findings indicate that worry may play a causal role in the anxiety-performance relationship, but only when its regulation by self-control is momentarily hindered.
Alex Bertrams
added a research item
In the present study, we tested the assumption that performance in a knowledge retrieval test would be lower in secondary school students with temporarily depleted self(control strength (n = 53) compared to secondary school students with temporarily available self-control strength (n = 56). After manipulating self-control strength, students were instructed to memorize the names and the functions of the human eye and to recall as many names and functions as possible following a 1-minute distraction task. The results supported our assumptions, as students with depleted self-control strength performed significantly worse in the knowledge retrieval task compared to students whose self-control strength had not been temporarily depleted. The results suggest that depleted self-control strength may negatively affect academic performance and hinder a successful academic career. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.
Alex Bertrams
added 2 research items
In the present work, we examine the role of self-control resources within the relationship between anxiety and cognitive test performance. We argue that self-control is required for keeping attention away from anxiety-related worries, which would otherwise distract a person from performing on the test. In Study 1 (N = 67) and Study 2 (N = 96), we found that state anxiety was negatively related to performance of verbal learning and mental arithmetic if participants' self-control resources were depleted, but it was unrelated if participants' self-control was intact. In Study 3 (N = 99), the worry component of trait test anxiety was more strongly related to perceived distraction by worries while performing an arithmetic task for participants with depleted self-control resources than for nondepleted participants. Furthermore, distraction by worries showed to be responsible for suboptimal performance. The findings may help to clarify the anxiety-performance relationship and offer a novel approach for counteracting performance decrements associated with test anxiety. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved).
The relationship between anxiety and performance has been found to depend on momentary self-control strength. In a sample of secondary school students (N = 136), we examined whether this finding can be generalized to knowledge retrieval. First, participants' test anxiety was assessed and their self-control strength was experimentally manipulated, and then they completed a standardized vocabulary test as ameasure of knowledge retrieval. While knowledge retrieval was not a function of test anxiety or self-control strength, the interaction of both variables predicted the knowledge demonstrated. In line with previous research, students with low self-control strength performed worse the more test anxious they were. In contrast, anxiety was unrelated to vocabulary performance in students with high self-control strength.We interpret this pattern such that test anxiety only hampers knowledge retrieval when self-control cannot be used to compensate for anxiety-related attentional deficits. This finding suggests that thorough preparation does not guarantee good test grades.