Monday, June 11, 2007

The June issue of the academic journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin included an article by Keith Markman and Corey Guenther of Ohio University, entitled "Psychological Momentum: Intuitive Physics and Naive Beliefs."

The article presents a package of four brief studies, each examining college student participants' beliefs and expectations regarding psychological momentum. The studies did not examine the relation between perceived momentum and athletes' actual later performance.

In one study, participants viewed a 10-minute videotape segment of a 1998 men's basketball game between Duke University and the University of North Carolina (which participants reported having no prior familiarity with). During the segment, Duke scored 15 straight points to cut a 19-point deficit to 4. At each of 10 pause points, participants reported their perceptions of which team had the momentum and who was going to win.

Another question asked participants to identify what they felt were turning points. Out of 11 possible plays, respondents disproportionately identified two of them, suggesting the perception of momentum can be a judgment of high consensus.

Other studies, using hypothetical scenarios, examined perceivers' impressions of the impact of a win over a traditional rival on a team's likelihood of winning its next game; the anticipated carryover of momentum on one task to performance on another task; and the anticipated effects of blocking a person's momentum on a task.

A key idea guiding the study was the authors' proposed analogy between psychologial and physical momentum. As the authors discussed, the latter is calculated by multiplying an object's mass by the velocity with which it is traveling (see here for the Wikipedia page on physics momentum). At this stage, the delineation of psychological factors to correspond with mass and velocity seemed a little loose to me (e.g., a win over a longstanding rival was said to confer more mass than a win over a run-of-the-mill opponent).

Through these studies, Markman and Guenther have "gotten the ball rolling" on a potentially fruitful line of research. Whether this "ball" gathers momentum, we'll have to wait and see.

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