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Athletes can be Motivated by Fake Scores, Study Finds

Update Date: May 29, 2014 04:31 PM EDT

Many athletes strive to beat their personal best scores. In a new study, researchers from Indiana University tricked cyclists into thinking that they had improved upon their personal best scores. The team then told the athletes that the scores were made up. They found that a little deception encouraged the athletes to work hard in beating those fake scores.

"The idea is that there's some sort of governor in your brain that regulates exercise intensity so you don't overheat, or run out of gas, so to speak," said Ren-Jay Shei, a doctoral student in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. "In this case, the governor was reset to a higher upper limit, allowing for improved performance."

In this study, the researchers recruited 14 trained male cyclists. The cyclists completed four different time trials on cycle ergometers, which were stationary bikes. The bikes were equipped with technology that measured speed and power output. The first session was used as an introductory race, whereas the second session recorded the cyclists' baseline.

In the other sessions, the researchers deceived the participants by programming the bikes to show results that were 102 percent of the baseline. As the athletes rode, the scores on the screen next to the avatars were higher than they should be. They found that even after the participants were informed about the deception, they continued to perform better. The group with the fake scores ended up improving from their baseline score by an average of 2.1 percent.

"This helps us understand how the body protects itself during exercise," Shei said.

The study's findings will be presented at a sports session meeting.

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