The Köhler Effect: Applications to Boost Motivation in Team Exercise and Sport
By Deborah L. Feltz, Ph.D.
Deborah L. Feltz is University Distinguished Professor and Chairperson of Kinesiology, Michigan State University. She has been studying the relationship between efficacy beliefs and sport performance, and motivation in sport and physical activity contexts for youth, coaches, and teams for more than 30 years. Her most recent scholarship has focused on group dynamics in exercise motivation, particularly within the context of exercise video games. Feltz has published one book and over 130 peer-reviewed articles on these topics. She is a fellow in the National Academy of Kinesiology and served as its 61st president. She also served as president of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. Feltz is a fellow in the American Psychological Association and was a member on the National Research Council’s Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance.
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Working in groups or with a partner is often thought to be way to motivate individuals to work harder. Within physical activity, exercising in groups is often more motivating than exercising alone. However, there also can be motivation losses in groups where individuals exert less effort when working in a group than when working individually (i.e., social loafing). For instance, in team sports, individual members may not work as hard on team efforts where their individual contributions are less identifiable than they would be if they performed individually. In exercise, if one is not paired with a challenging partner(s), he or she may exert only as much as the partner(s).
Research has begun to demonstrate that motivation gains can occur when performing in groups compared to performing individually (e.g., Hertel, Kerr, & Messe´, 2000). This motivation gain effect has been termed the Köhler effect, named after Otto Köhler (Köhler, 1927), a German industrial psychologist. The Köhler effect is a phenomenon that occurs when less capable individuals perform better when performing a task with others, compared to when performing a task individually. The motivation gain is more pronounced in interdependent tasks specifically where the outcome of the performance is dependent on the weaker individual.
The Köhler effect has great potential for boosting motivation in exercise and in performance on sports teams. Our research at Michigan State University has been investigating the Köhler effect in exercise video games (exergames) and in relay performance in teams.
We have heard numerous calls for people to get up off the couch and be more physically active. However, it is often difficult for individuals to find the motivation to start exercising or to increase the intensity and duration of their exercise to meet recommended levels. We need new ways to motivate individuals to become physically active and maintain those levels of physical activity. Exergames have become increasingly popular and have been marketed as a fun way to increase people’s motivation to exercise, but few take advantage of the potential of group dynamics to motivate physically active play.
With a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, our research team has conducted a series of experiments to determine the best ways to improve people’s motivation to use and continue exercising on exergames. Using a virtual game interface, participants completed a series of plank abdominal exercises, first individually, and then with a slightly more capable virtually-present partner. Those individuals who were paired with an interdependent virtual partner, where the outcome of the performance was dependent on the participant, had the highest motivation gains by persisting longer on the plank exercises on the second round compared to the individual control group (Feltz, Kerr, & Irwin, 2011). Further, we found that the Köhler effect provides the highest motivation gains when the less capable member is about 40% less capable than the stronger partner (Feltz, Kerr, & Irwin, in press).
Other experiments in the series looked at different characteristics to see if they influenced this Köhler motivation effect. One study examined whether having a partner who was superior to the participant on one task but inferior in a different task affected this motivation gain. We found that the motivation gain still occurred as long as the participant was the inferior member in an interdependent relationship with his or her partner, regardless of whether the participant was better on the other task. Similarly when participants were given partners with older ages and/or looked heavier than themselves, this motivation gain effect did not diminish (and for males, it actually slightly increased when they had heavier partners).
While motivation is essential for physical activity to occur in a specific activity session, it is equally important that this motivation be sustained over time. We also studied the Köhler effect using an aerobic biking task where participants performed this exercise six times over a 2 week span (Irwin, Scorniaenchi, Kerr, Eisenmann, & Feltz, in press). Similar to the plank exercises, participants completed the first session individually and then completed the remainder of the sessions either individually as a control or with a virtually-present partner. The participants in the partner conditions spent a significantly longer time biking than those in the individual condition. Further as the trials went on, the participants with the virtually-present partners continued to persist longer than they had on the previous session, demonstrating that this motivation gain effect does not diminish over time, but gets stronger.
We have not limited our study of the Köhler effect only to lab-based exergames but also have studied it in real teams in a competitive setting. Archival results of swimming and track and field throwing relays were analyzed for this motivation effect (Osborn, Irwin, Skogsberg, & Feltz, in press). Relay members were ranked according to their individual performances for a season so those with the slowest swim times or lowest throwing scores were considered the least capable member within a specific relay team. Individual times and scores were then compared to each individual’s performance on a relay task. Least capable members demonstrated the highest motivation gain in the relay where they performed significantly better than their individual performance compared to the other members in the relay. This analysis demonstrated that the Köhler effect happens in real world settings as well as experiments in the lab.
Research has demonstrated that the Köhler effect can enhance motivation in a variety of settings and it also provides exciting opportunities for the application of this effect to exercise and other physical activity venues. In terms of exergames, incorporating the principles of the Köhler effect so that an individual’s virtual partner is always moderately better than the user in an indispensable manner may help to sustain motivation to use these games longer and more frequently. In real-world settings, such as in team sports, where one cannot always be paired with a more capable teammate, coaches can make individual member contributions visible, and hold individual members accountable for what they do for the team.
Feltz, D.L., Kerr, N.L., & Irwin, B.C. (2011). Buddy up: The Köhler effect applied to health games. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 33, 506-526.
Feltz, D.L., Irwin, B.C., & Kerr, N.K. (in press). Match making: An examination of discrepancy in ability as a moderator of motivation gains in partnered exercise games. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology.
Hertel, G., Kerr, N. L., & Messé, L. A. (2000). Motivation gains in performance groups: Paradigmatic and theoretical developments on the Köhler effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 580-601.
Irwin, B.C., Scorniaenchi, J., Kerr, N.L., Eisenmann, J.C., & Feltz, D.L. (in press). Examining the Kohler motivation effect in repeated sessions of aerobic exercise. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Köhler, O. (1927). Über den Gruppenwirkungsgrad der menschlichen Körperarbeit und die Bedingung optimaler Kollektivkraftreaktion [Human physical performance in groups and conditions for optimal collective performance]. Industrielle Psychotechnik, 4, 209-226.
Osborn, K.A., Irwin, B.C., Skogsberg, N.K., & Feltz, D.L. (in press). The Köhler effect: Motivation gains and losses in real sports groups. Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology.