The psychology of baseball isn’t all that different from the psychology of dating.
Stay with me.
My college Sport Psychology class taught me about the expectancy-value theory. The Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine defines expectancy-value theory as “the theory that behaviour is a function of the interaction between a person’s expectancies about the outcomes of actions and the value they place on those outcomes.”
Here’s an easy way to think about expectancy and task value. Have you ever sat down to play with a dog, one that really wants to play with you?
If you decide that the game is to put his favorite toy on the highest shelf in your house and wait for him to jump up and get it, the task value is super high. It would be amazing if he could! However, the dog is going to take one look at that shelf 8 feet off the ground and know he has no chance. His expectancy of success is low, so he’s going to be disinterested.
If you decide to play tug-of-war, he’s going to be really interested, but not if he wins every time. The expectancy of success becomes high, but the task value is low – he doesn’t need to work for his win.
But when he’s giving that best “please, play with me” face, and you make the game challenging enough that he can get the toy from you, but has to work for it, then it becomes fun.
Creating a somewhat equal amount of expectancy and task value in any game is where the Goldilocks zone is for achievement motivation.
Like dogs, we are achievement-oriented beings, and baseball gives us a good backdrop to explore this. Say I’m asked to face three pitchers. My sister, a professional baseball player and the Nolan Ryan model of the Terminator. Even though my sister is a great athlete, I think we know where all these opponents fall in terms of expectancy and task value.
Now, expectancy and task value are dynamic. They change. Beating the Nolan Ryan Terminator seems like an impossible feat at first, but what if I was told of a flaw in his programming that I could exploit to improve my chances? Now my success expectancy is higher than before.
Let’s say in my first at bat of a game, I have no doubt in my mind that I’m going to hit the ball hard off of the guy on the mound. Three pitches later, I’m back in the dugout wondering how that guy got me out. Am I going to be as confident going into my next at bat against him?
Our knowledge and experience plays in, but so do the people around us. Expectancy and task value are influenced by other factors. Psychologist Albert Bandura identifies four factors: personal experience, vicarious experience, social persuasion, and physiological factors.
So now let’s circle back to the question you’re all waiting for. What does this have to do with dating?
Have you ever been out with your friends, and you all notice the girl at the end of the bar? You’re pretty sure she’d have a great smile, but not a single person there is talking to her, so you don’t know for certain.
Here’s a common conversation in that scenario:
Your buddy with 20/20 peripheral vision comments on the girl’s attractiveness saying, “Hey, check out that girl over there. She’s pretty cute. What do you guys think?”
FOMO guy adds, “Damn, she’s gorgeous.”
1-Up man escalates the stakes with “Wow, she’s like a 10…way out of our league. She must have so many guys bothering her anyway.”
Mr. Periphs, who was initially planning to go to talk to her, is now discouraged and agrees with them saying, “Yeah, she probably just wants to be left alone.”
FOMO guy ends up conversing with a woman that he’s less interested in, and 1-Up man gets rejected by the smoking hot bartender who doesn’t want to be bothered at work.
Meanwhile, the guy in the corner no one noticed walks away with the girl’s phone number. “How’d he get her number? Why not me?” someone from the group adds.
Now you’re left with only your great 20/20 peripheral vision and no number from the girl with the great smile. Oh, not you… I meant your buddy, right?
you your buddy and the entire group were influenced by the expectancy-value theory. Personal experience may have taught FOMO guy and 1-Up Man that the expectancy of success was just too low, even though the task had high value, and discouraging social persuasion has Mr. Periphs giving up as well.
Your friends, FOMO guy and 1-Up Man, are what you could consider low-need achievers, or those who avoid challenging tasks because their fear of failure is greater than their expectation for success. They are examples of the two types of fear of failure:
FOMO guy chose the easy task because he was more likely to succeed, and 1-Up Man went with the impossibly hard to get bartender because it’s less shameful if the goal isn’t reached.
Mr. Periphs should take some notes from the guy who ended up getting the number from the girl with the great smile. Instead of saying, “how’d he get her number?” Mr. Periphs should be saying, “if he can do it, I can do it as well,” which would be considered a vicarious experience.
Vicarious experience isn’t as influential as direct experience though. That’s why I think it’s important to be less like the fear of failure duo, FOMO guy and 1-Up Man, and more like the guy who got her number–not just in dating.
Understanding that failure is part of the learning process makes it easier for us to embrace it when it happens to us. When we have a combination of successes and setbacks, that means we are challenging ourselves in that goldilocks recipe of expectancy and task value for achievement motivation.
And there you have it. Playing with a dog, hitting bombs, and success in love all come back down to the same basic psychology. Now you just have to stop reading about it and go execute.