If you want to run faster, focus on the finish line.
No, that's just not a cheesy motto for achieving success. According to fascinating new research from psychologists at New York University, it's a fairly literal truth of human motivation.
The NYU researchers found that walkers who hold their gaze on an object in the distance saw the distance as being closer, walked faster and experienced less physical exertion compared to those who let their minds wander -- a phenomenon known as "attention narrowing."
“People are less interested in exercise if physical activity seems daunting, which can happen when distances to be walked appear quite long,” explains New York University’s Emily Balcetis, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and one of the study’s co-authors. “These findings indicate that narrowly focusing visual attention on a specific target, like a building a few blocks ahead, rather than looking around your surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster, and also makes exercising seem easier.”
For the first experiment, the researchers brought 66 study participants to a park in New York during the summer. They were asked to stand 12 feet away from a cooler full of ice and cold drinks, and then asked to estimate their distance from the cooler. One group was asked to imagine that a spotlight was shining on to the cooler and instructed to direct their full focus to the cooler while ignoring the surrounding environment (the narrowed attention condition), while the other group was asked to move their attention naturally in whatever way that allowed them to best estimate distance (the natural attention condition).
Those who focused only on the cooler perceived it to be closer than those who allowed their attention to move naturally.
Then, in a second experiment, the researchers asked 73 participants to walk 20 feet indoors while wearing heavy ankle weights. One group was asked to focus solely on a cone marking the finishing line, while the second group was instructed to freely direct their attention to anything in their surroundings. Both groups were timed while they completed the walking test.
The narrowed attention group perceived the cones to be 28 percent closer than those in the natural attention group, and they also walked 23 percent faster while reporting less exertion.
These and other findings suggest that visual perception can change based on our physical and mental state. In a study conducted last year, the same research team found that overweight people see distances as being further than those who are average weight. This effect was particularly pronounced among those who were unmotivated to exercise.
The findings suggest that using strategies to narrow attention could lead to marked improvements in exercise quality.
“Interventions that train people to keep their ‘eyes on the prize’ may play an important role in health and fitness," one of the study's authors, Dr. Shana Cole, said in a statement. "When goals appear within reach, and when people move faster and experience exercise as easier, they may be especially motivated to continue exercising."
The study was published in the December issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion