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A Mental Winner Effect? Competitive Mental Imagery Impacts Self-Assurance but not Testosterone in Women

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Abstract

Objective

In humans and other species, winning or losing a competition elicits changes in testosterone that may influence engagement or performance in subsequent competitive events. Furthermore, anticipating or observing competition can change mood and testosterone, suggesting that cognitions surrounding competitive events may at least partially drive specific physiological and emotional responses. In the present study, we investigated the effect of imagined competition on mood and testosterone in women.

Methods

Participants (62 women) were randomly assigned to one of four conditions (high-investment win, high-investment loss, low-investment win, low-investment loss) and were asked to imagine and write about experiencing both the competition and its outcome. Salivary testosterone levels and self-reported mood were assessed before and after the competitive cognition task.

Results

Although imagining a competitive scenario was not salient enough to elicit significant changes in testosterone, imagining a high-investment competition and imagining a win each significantly increased feelings of self-assurance. Participants were more likely to write about their motivation to compete again when imagining a loss than when imagining a win, but testosterone did not predict including content about competing again.

Conclusions

Visualizing oneself winning a contest of personal importance increased feelings of self-assurance in the absence of a testosterone response in women. Future research is needed to determine how the combination of positive mental imagery and physical competition could influence mood and testosterone, and whether self-assurance induced by mental imagery can increase the chance of future victories.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Ana Chavez, Cara Dahlhausen, Nico Mercado, and Jeheli Odidi for assistance with data collection.

Funding

This research was supported in part by a Small Research Grant from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and by an Emma Lou Linn Faculty-Student Research Grant from St. Edward’s University.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katherine L. Goldey.

Ethics declarations

This research complied with all laws of the country in which it was performed (United States of America). All human studies were approved by the University’s Institutional Review Board and therefore have been performed in accordance with the ethical standards of the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments. All participants provided informed consent prior to participation in the study.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Appendix

Appendix

Prompts for High Investment Conditions

Take a moment to think about an activity in your life that you are invested in. This could be related to art, performance, sports, academia, or your work. Imagine a scenario in which you have entered a competition centered around this activity. You have spent a lot of time and energy preparing for this competition and are emotionally invested in the outcome. Take some time to explore this scenario. Consider the hope of winning the competition as well as gaining the merit and recognition that would come with it.

  1. 1.

    Describe the activity that you imagined (art, performance, sports, academia, work, etc.) and its significance in your life.

  2. 2.

    Describe your process of preparing or practicing for the competition and how you feel during this process.

  3. 3.

    Describe how you feel on the day of the competition as the contest is about to begin.

  4. 4.

    Describe the setting of the competition: What is the location? Who else is present?

  5. 5.

    Describe the events that occur during the competition itself.

  6. 6.

    Describe your feelings as you are awaiting the outcome (e.g. results of a competition or final score of a game, etc.).

High Investment Win

Now imagine that this long-awaited competition has passed and you receive a notification of the results. You have won the competition and are congratulated for your performance.

  1. 7.

    Describe how you feel when you find out you have won the competition and are congratulated.

  2. 8.

    After finding out you have won, what will you do next?

  3. 9.

    Please describe any other details and/or aspects of the situation not included in your responses to the above questions.

High Investment Loss

Now imagine that this long-awaited competition has passed and you receive a notification of the results. Unfortunately, you have not placed in the competition and will not reap any external reward for participating.

  1. 7.

    Describe how you feel when you find out you have not placed in the competition and will not reap any reward.

  2. 8.

    After finding out you have not placed, what will you do next?

  3. 9.

    Please describe any other details and/or aspects of the situation not included in your responses to the above questions.

Prompts for Low Investment Conditions

Take a moment to imagine yourself going about a regular day of errands, with nothing extraordinary happening. After completing your grocery shopping, you are greeted by the clerk at the counter. You spark up a friendly conversation and are informed that today, the store is holding a customer appreciation raffle for fifty dollars cash in which you are automatically entered. The raffle drawing will be held later this evening. Take some time to explore this scenario. Consider how you feel about the prospect of an unexpected fifty dollars.

  1. 1.

    Describe your process of running errands and how you feel during this process.

  2. 2.

    Describe how you feel at the grocery store as you complete your shopping.

  3. 3.

    Describe the setting of the grocery store: What is the store like? Who else is present?

  4. 4.

    Describe the events that occur as you talk to the grocery clerk and find out about the raffle.

  5. 5.

    Describe how you imagined spending the fifty dollars in the event that you won the raffle and what the significance of winning the raffle would be.

  6. 6.

    Describe your feelings as you are awaiting the results.

Low Investment Win

Now imagine that the store has done the raffle drawing and you receive notification of the results. You have won the fifty dollars and are congratulated.

  1. 7.

    Describe how you feel when you find out you have won the raffle and are congratulated.

  2. 8.

    After finding out you have won, what will you do next?

  3. 9.

    Please describe any other details and/or aspects of the situation not included in your responses to the above questions.

Low Investment Loss

Now imagine that the raffle drawing has passed and you receive notification of the results. Unfortunately, you have not won the raffle for fifty dollars or any associated prizes.

  1. 7.

    Describe how you feel when you find out you have not won the raffle and will not reap any reward.

  2. 8.

    After finding out you have not won, what will you do next?

  3. 9.

    Please describe any other details and/or aspects of the situation not included in your responses to the above questions.

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Cite this article

Gray, J.M., Montemayor, E., Drennan, M. et al. A Mental Winner Effect? Competitive Mental Imagery Impacts Self-Assurance but not Testosterone in Women. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology 6, 467–489 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40750-020-00149-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40750-020-00149-x

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