An inch away from being mentally tough: Performance bias in ratings of mental toughness


Are assessments of an athlete's mental toughness influenced by how that athlete performs in a single moment in a game? We conducted three experimental studies to address this question and conclude that the answer is yes. In each study, sports fans (total N = 1,097) read scenarios that depicted a mentally tough basketball player, either by describing the player as having many mentally tough qualities (Study 1), or by stating that the player had been identified as being mentally tough by an expert sport psychologist (Studies 2 and 3). Participants then read that the player was about to take a championship-winning shot and were randomly assigned to learn that the shot had been either successful or unsuccessful. Moreover, in Studies 1 and 2 participants learned that the outcome had been either decisive (i.e., a "perfect swish" or an "air ball") or indecisive (i.e., the ball hitting the backboard, then the rim and, eventually, either going or not going into the basket). In each study, despite learning that the athlete was very mentally tough, participants' mental toughness ratings depended on whether or not the shot was successful. Ratings were also sensitive to the way in which an outcome was attained: ratings decreased in a linear pattern with the highest ratings following a decisive success, and the lowest ratings following a decisive failure. Overall, this research supports the criticism that assessments of mental toughness are distorted by how an athlete performs in a single moment.

Acknowledgments: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada