The Red Queen Effect, and its Emotional Impact
I have written on a number of occasions about that phenomenon whereby people practise/rehearse most diligently, but don’t seem to get significantly better. (Previous posts are here, here and here.) I was thinking about it again recently, having heard a number of conversations in which people were having to deal with emotional fall-out from this experience in the context of a competitive environment.
There were three main elements that struck me about what people were struggling with. Their ensembles had (a) worked their socks off, (b) found themselves with a slightly lower score than the year before, and (c) had been told by their friends that they were sounding better and better. I wanted to stop and reflect on each of these elements, as they form a clear and recognisable pattern that a lot of groups experience.
The first thing to remark on is that this shape of disappointment seems to apply particularly to contexts in which performances are graded - contests, and to a lesser extent graded exams. (To a lesser extent because there is often a teacher involved in preparing for exams whose job it is to direct development, and also because graded exams escalate the challenges in such a way as to force changes.)
I’m sure that groups that don’t compete also have the same pattern of working hard and staying at basically the same level, they just don’t get the formal feedback that this is happening that leads to disappointment. Instead, they only get the feedback from their friends that they are sounding better than ever, even if they’re not.
Let’s look at these three elements of disappointment in reverse order, since we’ve mentioned the misleading feedback from friends. Now, I’m sure that nobody’s friends want to mislead, and I’m equally sure that those friends are experienced enough listeners to recognise improvements when they hear them. So, why are they saying the ensemble sounds great, when the feedback from competition says they’re no better and possibly worse?
I suspect the dynamic here is about time-frame. When people are preparing for a big event, they ramp up their efforts and focus to hone their performance to the peak they can currently manage. The external feedback is measuring peak to peak - scoring how how well you did today at the top of your current game, which you then compare to how you scored last time you did that amount of preparation. Your friends are comparing the top of your game to how you sounded at various other events in the meantime that were less high-pressure and which you therefore prepared for in a less focused way.
Your dress-rehearsal for contest is always going to sound better than your Christmas party and the gig you did in a shopping centre when half the singers were away on holiday. So your friends are right to say your hard work is making a difference, but it may be the difference within your current level rather than a significant improvement over time. This is a form of the problem of the recency effect.
This in turn brings up the second question: how did we actually score lower than last year? The fingers often point at the judges here, and not unreasonably. No scoring system for musical activity is completely objective and guaranteed to get the exact score every time. But you know, they are generally pretty good, and will produce comparable results to a near-as-dammit level of accuracy. A lot of effort goes into making that the case, after all. And often the changes in scoring people are getting angst-ridden about are within the tolerances the systems encompass.
Moreover, performance is at least as, if not more, volatile than musical perception. Any performer or group of performers has within their capability a range of performance levels. Some days they’ll be competent but a shade lacklustre, other days they’ll outperform themselves. They’ll rarely do significantly worse than usual (except in extraordinary circumstances), and likewise they’re most unlikely to come up with something radically better on the spur on the moment. But there will be better or worse performances for them.
So if you produce an amazing (for you) performance on one occasion, the temptation is to see that as a sign of a new era of increasing skills year-on-year. But it may be that everything came together just right that day, and a year later a performance that is merely well-prepared and purposefully delivered doesn’t quite produce the same fire.
Neither slightly lower and slightly higher scores, that is, may be statistically significant indicators of progress or decline. Both may be indicators that you are maintaining.
So, that brings us back to the first question part of the problem: you’ve worked your socks off. Why does this not result in improvement?
This is the dimension I have considered before in the posts linked above, so I’ll just summarise here: the key thing seems to be one of habits, and of change. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, as they say, you’ll keep getting what you always get. (Also see this post: How to become excellent.) You need rehearsal routines and habits as these are what allow you to maintain your current level, but if you don’t also make changes, you won’t exceed that level either.
Working harder won’t, of itself, improve your performance, if the content, methods, and approach of the work remains the same. If you’ve been working your socks off but not seeing any reward in your external feedback, it’s time to go and find some new socks.