Olympic rings at night over water in Tokyo

Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson

The Games go on, but without fans. Will athletes' performance suffer?

Vikram Chib, whose research at Johns Hopkins focuses on the brain processes behind motivation and incentive and how they relate to motor actions, discusses what to expect from participants in the Tokyo Olympics

The Summer Olympics in Tokyo will officially begin Friday with one notable absence: spectators. The decision to go on with the Games but to forbid fans was announced by organizers earlier this month as a resurgence of COVID-19 prompted Japan to declare a state of emergency in the capital city.

The 11th hour shift in policy will deny Tokyo the colorful fanfare typically seen in Olympic host cities and cost organizers an estimated $800 million in ticket revenues. But how will it affect the more than 11,000 athletes expected to compete in these Games, which were already delayed for a year by the coronavirus pandemic? What impact will the empty venues have on their performance at what for many will be the most significant moment of their athletic careers?

For insight, the Hub spoke with Vikram Chib, associate professor in Johns Hopkins University's Department of Biomedical Engineering whose research looks at how motivation—a stadium packed with cheering spectators, for example—drives motor actions and performance. His past work has looked at the brain science behind athletes choking under pressure, and also how having an audience can make you perform better.

We spoke with him about what to expect from athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and his current research, which is looking at where intrinsic motivation comes from.

What impact would you expect the absence of spectators to have on athletes, particularly elite athletes like we will see at the Olympics?

Spectators are a form of motivation—it's an incentive, right? People cheering you on, it gets you amped up, or it could make you nervous. But I think that when people are very skilled and highly trained, as these athletes are, and they've been doing it as long as they have been, I don't think it will make a big of a difference. Maybe that's not the sexiest answer—but I don't think it's going to make much difference.

I do think the impact might be more for people that are a little bit lower in level, who are just there to compete and maybe hope to beat a personal best. But I'm not so sure how much of a difference it is going to make for the people that we're already expecting to win.

We're assuming spectators create a motivational incentive, something that would increase performance. But on the other hand, the presence of spectators could create some pressure, and your research has shown that pressure can lead to reduced performance. So which is it? Would you generally expect spectators to increase performance, or inhibit it?

Yeah. It's a bit weird, right? The thing about motivation is, it's like medicine—you want to get the right dose.

Vikram Chib

Image caption: Vikram Chib

We can take the condition of social incentives—I'm calling being watched by others a social incentive. When you're being watched by others, you have this hope that you're going to perform well, whether it's because you want people to view you favorably or because you don't want the negative feedback from other people if you don't do well. What we've shown is that when you are being watched by other people, areas of the brain related to theory of mind come online. It's called mentalizing—thinking about other people and what they are thinking. So these areas come online, and they tend to inflate incentives related to successful task performance.

For example, in the task that we did, we paid people $25 to do a task, and we had a condition when they were watched by a few people and one when they were not watched by anyone. And when they were being watched, it sort of inflated the value representations in the brain. So rather than it being as if you were just looking at $25, it was like $26 or $27—it adds a little bit of incentive and boosts the value signals in your brain.

These mentalizing areas—the medial prefrontal cortex, the temporal parietal junction—are representing your thoughts about what other people are thinking, and they then influence your value representations related to successful task performance. And then when you're doing the task, those reward representations, they sort of get mixed up in the ventral striatum, an area that's related to both motor and motivational aspects, and that's what energizes and invigorates performance. But it can also lead to you doing poorly—I suspect that if you get a much bigger audience, it might actually become a little bit detrimental. So you're looking for that sweet spot in which motivation ramps up your performance just enough to get you to do better, but not so much that you're going to choke under pressure.

For these Olympic athletes, there's the social incentive of an audience. But there are also other incentives—many countries give financial bonuses if you win a medal. And for some athletes, like gymnasts, if they perform well, they can get endorsement deals afterwards that are worth millions of dollars. So the incentives don't just come from the people in the stands—it's multi-dimensional. And how all of that interacts is pretty complex.

You're a sports fan, I gather. Do you find yourself thinking about your work when you watch sports? Are you simultaneously thinking about the competition and what's going on in the athletes' brains?

I do, actually. Some of our experiments begin with me watching sports and I think "huh, I wonder ... ." For example, our research on choking under pressure, where we're giving people hundreds of dollars to do motor tasks in the scanner, our thinking was, "Oh, it's like taking penalty kicks."

Right now we are doing a little bit about motor performance, looking at how people perceive the agency of what they are doing. A good example is free throws—your opponent isn't doing anything to interfere with your performance, you are shooting the ball, and you have complete agency over whether you're going to score that free throw or not. A penalty kick is a bit different because there's a goalkeeper who is trying to block your shot. But when you have complete agency over what you're doing, other things can come into play. We're trying to figure out how people perceive their agency and how they're going to do, and one of the things that we're looking at is confidence. If I tell you, "I'm going to hit that free throw," how well do I actually assess how I'm going to do?

Another thing that we're looking at is the idea of effort generally, exerting physical and cognitive effort. You and I might have the exact same physical capacity, but I don't want to go to the gym and you're willing to go to the gym. Even though we can both bench press the same amount, or run the same distance, where does the intrinsic motivation come from to make me not want to exert effort, but you exert effort. We're trying to understand those individual differences and where they come from.

These are fun examples, but the reason we're doing it is because, in the case of depression and other psychiatric disorders, motivation is a big problem. And if we can figure out where individual differences in motivation and beliefs in your ability come from, then maybe when things are not going great psychologically for someone, we can say, "I think this is the network in the brain that's coming online, and this is how I might be able to intervene," whether it's with cognitive behavioral therapy or with medication.

Our whole lives are driven by motivation. Motivation is so multidimensional, and figuring it out is quite challenging. The whole reason I came to Hopkins was because of the patients—the hope is that maybe we can work with patients and figure this stuff out. Having said that, if you can find a sports organization that wants to use this information and hook me up with them, I will do both.