Why do we make errors under pressure? A direct test of two theories

Lots of research has attempted to answer the questions: why do people fail under pressure? Two prominent theories in the motor learning literature that describe performance failure under pressure are (1) the theory of reinvestment, and (2) the theory of ironic processing. What do these mean?

  1. The theory of reinvestment suggests that the performance of motor skills will decline under pressure when the performer consciously attends to the step-by-step mechanics of the movement. This is thought to cause the skill to be executed in a manner that resembles a lesser skilled performer.
  2. The theory of ironic processing suggests that pressure will cause a performer to make an error where the error is supposed to be avoided. For example, a golfer who says “don’t hit the ball left in to the water” often ends up hitting the ball into the water! A key prediction of this theory is that the performer will display the characteristics of a well executed skill, despite if the end result is undesirable.

Rob Gray and colleagues tested the two theories in a baseball pitching task.

The study

24 experienced baseball pitchers participated in the study. Their task was to pitch the ball to a target, which was highlighted as one rectangle in a quadrant (see Figure below).

Participants were randomly allocated to 2 groups: A target-only group and an ironic group. The target-only group – as the name implies – were only shown the target of where to the pitch the ball. The ironic group were shown the target of where to pitch the ball, as well as the target area to be avoided.

Gray et al baseball pitching
Extracted from Gray et al. (2016)

Both groups performed 90 pitches across 3 conditions (i.e., 30 pitches in each condition). The first and third conditions were identical – they were considered low pressure conditions. The second condition, however, was considered the high pressure condition. To increase pressure, participants were offered a $50 prize if they were the most accurate pitcher across all participants. They were also told that their performance was to be filmed and evaluated by their coach.

The results

Both groups displayed significantly poorer performance during the pressure condition, as indicated by a decrease in pitches hitting the target.

Interestingly, the two groups performed poorly under pressure for different reasons. The target only group displayed significantly greater variability in several key kinematic variables. This suggests that the skill was performed with less stability under pressure.

Comparatively, the ironic group displayed no change in movement variability for these kinematic variables, but rather showed a significant increase in the number of pitches that hit the “to be avoided” target.

Hence, the target group displayed poorer performance under pressure in accordance with the theory of reinvestment (i.e., skill execution resembled a lesser skilled pitcher), whereas the ironic group’s poorer performance under pressure was aligned with the theory of ironic processing (i.e., skill execution was considered “skilled”, but the pitches were more often directed to the to-be-avoided target).


Practical implications

There are at least 2 practical implications:

  1. If working with an athlete who is performing poorly under pressure, it will be valuable to understand the reason underlying the decline in performance (e.g., reinvestment or ironic processing). This knowledge can guide subsequent training.
  2. Care must be taken when providing an athlete with information about an opponents strengths and weaknesses, Informing an athlete about an opponents strengths (e.g., “don’t pitch there”) might lead to performance that aligns with the theory of ironic processing.


Gray, R., Orn, A., & Woodman, T. (2016). Ironic and Reinvestment Effects in Baseball Pitching: How Information About an Opponent Can Influence Performance Under Pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 39,  1-26.


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