Here are two things you might not think to put together: basketball and contemplating the human condition.
But put them together is exactly what researchers from University of Arizona did in a paper called He Dies, He Shoots: Evidence That Reminders of Death Motivate Improved Performance in Basketball.
In a series of studies, the psychologists had people play one-on-one basketball games or take shots on their own. Some of the participants were primed to think about death before heading onto the court.
When all the games were played and the shots taken, it turned out that the people who had been subtly reminded of their mortality performed better than those who had blissfully forgotten that life is finite. Specifically, the players who were thinking about death did better in the one-on-one games and made more shots in the shooting task.
The upshot, then (so to speak), is that thinking about death apparently motivated basketball players to bring their A games.
The authors have some ideas about why this could be. Previous work has suggested that thinking about death makes people strive to increase their self-esteem. According to the pleasantly named “Terror Management Theory,” people who are reminded of their mortality seek to improve their self-esteem because high self-esteem counteracts some of the anxiety associated with staring into the void.
In the case of the basketball players, being reminded of death made them try to raise their self-esteem by performing their best on the court, or so the theory goes. And the players who made more shots in the shooting task did report higher self-esteem as a result. Whatever the reason, though, one thing seems clear from the study: in some contexts, remembering our own mortality can motivate us to step up our game.
Still, thinking about death isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Besides bringing out our athletic prowess, contemplating our inevitable demise can have other effects too — including, quite logically, making us anxious. For example, one study found that thinking about mortality exacerbates people’s phobic and compulsive behaviors.
So we can probably all agree on this: thinking about death too much isn’t a good thing. But being reminded that our lives are finite from time to time can focus our actions and motivate us to strive for our best — on the basketball court and off the court in daily life.