Thursday, July 26, 2012

Batter see, batter do.

The baseball season is in full swing, and across the US fans are glued to their TV sets.  I have always thought of baseball as a grand soap opera.  Like a soap opera, it is boring to watch just one game without knowing the players and what they have been doing lately.  Even within a single game, though, there are times when a particular team catches fire.  Hitters who have been sleepwalking through the game suddenly come alive with a cluster of hits leading to a big inning.
Why would hits cluster like that?
A paper by Rob Gray and Sian Beilock in the March, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology:  Applied suggests that experienced baseball players may be affected by what other players have done.
In their studies, they took both experienced college-level baseball players and relatively inexperienced recreational players and had them hit baseballs in a batting simulation.  In this simulation, players held a bat and swung at pitches shown on a screen in front of them.  A lot of work done with this system (including many studies by Gray, Beilock, and their colleagues) suggests that the simulation captures many of the aspects of real batting. 
Batters get sets of 5 pitches.  They had to try to hit one of those five pitches.  Before seeing a set of pitches, the batters saw a prompt on the screen.  Sometimes the prompt was a ball flying into the outfield as if it had been hit.  Sometimes, it was a ball lying on the outfield as if it had been hit there.  Sometimes, it was the word “left,” “center,” or “right.”  Sometimes, the prompt was just an empty field.
The experienced hitters were strongly influenced by the prompt.  On average, they hit the ball successfully into the field on the first or second pitch they saw.  They were faster to get a hit when they saw a ball flying to the outfield or when they saw the ball lying in the outfield than when they got no prompt at all.  The words had little effect on their hitting relative to the prompt.  The inexperienced hitters were also more likely to get a hit after seeing the ball fly to the outfield, though on average it took them 2-3 pitches to get a hit.
The prompt also affected where the players hit the ball.  When players saw a ball flying (or sitting) in left field, they tended to hit the ball to left field.  Seeing a hit to center field led them to hit the ball to center, and seeing a ball hit to right led them to hit the ball to right field.  This effect was strongest for the experienced hitters.  This effect occurred even when the players were instructed to try to hit the ball directly over second base into center field. 
Presumably what is happening here is that seeing a baseball hit to the outfield leads hitters (and particularly experienced hitters) to think about the movements they would have to make to hit the ball in a similar way.  This thinking (which is probably not done consciously) prepares the hitter for batting.  In this way, a hit by one player can actually affect what a second player does on the next at-bat.
Assuming you’re not a baseball player, though, what does this mean for you?
Findings like this suggest something interesting about the way we understand the world.  When watching events in the world, part of the way we understand what is happening is by imagining how we would perform the same action. 
Go to a rock concert, and watch the number of people who spontaneously play air guitar during a musician’s solo.  This isn’t just wishful thinking, it is an expression of the way we understand what that musician is doing.  That may also be why it is so hard to watch a contortionist at the circus.  When we see a flexible performer bending in directions that do not seem possible, we cringe at the pain we would feel if we performed the same actions.
These results also suggest why we often adopt the goals of the people around us.  Henk Aarts, Peter Gollwitzer, and Ran Hassin have shown that watching people perform an action often leads us to do the same thing.  They call this phenomenon goal contagion.  If we understand what people are doing in part by understanding how we would do it ourselves, then it is straightforward to see how that might also make us more likely to perform a similar action.