Psyched Up or Psyched Out?



  • High aspirations can increase mental focus and physical effort, thus improving performance
  • People are more likely to get psyched out in direct competition with a skilled opponent

Assistant Professor Emily Amanatullah will speak about her research on the role of gender in the workplace at the Texas Enterprise Speaker Series on March 28.

When you work alongside the most talented person in your field, are you more likely to get psyched up and rise to the challenge, or will you psych yourself out and crack under the pressure?

Research by Emily Amanatullah, assistant professor of management at the McCombs School of Business, examines whether working alongside talented colleagues has positive or negative effects on individual performance. The study was inspired by the dynamics of golf — specifically, the concept of two people playing alongside each other but not directly competing with one another. Amanatullah wondered whether, when a golfer learns that he is about to pair up with a strong player — such as Tiger Woods, circa 2002 — would he be psyched up or psyched out?

Woods in this case is a “high-status coactor,” a highly skilled person working alongside someone else. This research attempted to explore the question: when you’re in the presence of a high-status coactor, does it get you pumped up and make you do well, or does it psych you out and make you do worse than what you would do normally?

Looking at the statistics of golfers playing in the Master’s tournament over a five-year span, the researchers found that “playing alongside a high-status coactor increased performance — individuals were psyched up by the presence of somebody doing the same task who is exceptional at doing what they do,” Amanatullah says.

They then examined whether these findings translate to the workplace. Amanatullah explains the connection: “You’re not really in direct competition with the other person; their performance in no way affects your own, since you are each working independently on a task — both on the golf course and at work. But being in the presence of other people can still affect the way you get your independent work done.”

In the lab, researchers ran experiments to test participants’ performance when completing various cognitive tasks (anagrams, computer games, puzzles, etc.). Like in golf, when the participants worked alongside high-status coactors, their performance always improved. But in another experiment, when participants were put in direct competition against skilled opponents, their performance declined.

Amanatullah explains that co-action (working alongside someone) is more related to the business world than competition, because individual coworkers generally do not face off against each other in a zero-sum game. There are, of course, instances in which coworkers are actually in direct competition — for sales leads, bonuses, special honors, and other perks. In these cases, the potential for getting psyched out could be heightened.

Amanatullah suggests that managers can draw from these findings as they coordinate the operations of their organizations, especially from a human resources standpoint. Companies could benefit from increasing the visibility of their star employees, while offering rewards and incentives that are independently determined.

“By recognizing that not all coactors are the same, organizations and their members may be able to better harness the benefits of performing in the presence of others,” the study concludes.

This is a condensed version of an article that originally appeared on Texas Enterprise in August 2011. To read the full story, click here.


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Faculty in this Article

Emily Amanatullah

Assistant Professor of Management McCombs School of Business

Emily Amanatullah earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from Columbia University in 2007 and a B.S. in psychology and computer science from...

About The Author

Rob Heidrick

Writer, McCombs School of Business

Born and raised in Austin, writer Rob Heidrick has spent several years as a contributor and editor at local magazines and community newspapers. He...

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