Hey! You suck at math and your shoes are stupid.
How did that make you feel? I know: it probably didn’t have much of a bite coming some a random goof like me on the internet. Maybe you’re not even wearing shoes right now. But if the criticisms came from a more credible source like a test of your math skills or a …shoe test,1 it would sting more. And what’s more, in order to preserve a positive image of yourself in your own head, you are more likely to act defensively by dismissing the results of the math test or at the very least you would be more open to suggestions that the test was flawed. This is especially true if you consider being good at math as as an important part of your identity.
Such shielding of our precious self-image can be counterproductive in a lot of cases. If you aim to get a better grade in that math class or a better performance review at work, then you are best served by understanding your flaws and figuring out how to improve. Avoiding and discrediting valid feedback is a bad idea in such a case. How can we best resist this mental rut and improve ourselves? How, oh how?
You all. Good news. Video games can help.
Sometimes it feels good to win and to feel that you are mastering a challenging game. It’s nice to win a round in an online shooter or to develop a winning character build in a role playing game. It feels good to beat a boss or top your friend’s best time on a race track. And such successes are more likely in video games than in real life because games are specifically designed to let you learn, develop, and excel.
This fact ties back in with math tests and performance reviews because of something called Self-Affirmation Theory (SAT).2 This theory predicts what I described above about ignoring negative (but useful) feedback that’s damaging to important self concepts. But it also suggests that a good way to get people to avoid this mental trap is to give them feedback about some other, unrelated thing that bolsters their self image. So if you find out that you got a bad score on a math test you may not discredit that feedback if you’re also told that you are very likeable.
Or maybe if you’re told that you’re good at video games. That idea –that feeling good at video games can inoculate people against the pitfalls of Self Affirmation Theory– was recently tested by a study appearing in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.3 In it, researchers had subjects take what they thought was a general intelligence test. Then, because all psychology researchers are pathological liars, they gave some subjects bogus feedback. Specifically, they told them that they did horribly on the test and that they would be surprised if the subject could figure out how to pour water from a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.
Then the researchers had the subjects play a custom made first person shooter game that they said was a “valid assessment of video game skills.” Then, some got feedback on the game saying that they were super awesome at it and that they had amazing skills.
What they found was that for subjects who thought of themselves as gamers and for whom doing well in a game was part of their identity, the results of the intelligence test were less harmful but also not ignored. They accepted what, in the absence of all the lies, would have been accurate feedback about their performance on the test. If they had been so inclined and given the opportunity, they would likely have been more motivated to work towards improving themselves in that area.
The researchers sum up by saying:
The results suggest that players who value video game suc-cess as part of their identity can use positive video game feedback as a buffer against threatening negative test scores and thereby allow players to internalize such information.4
So the next time you’re waiting the results of a test, a job application, or some other feedback about something near and dear to you, consider some preemptive, soothing balm in the form of crushing some scrubs or completing a quest in your favorite game.