In three experiments, we demonstrated that golfers perceive the size of the hole relative to their golfing performance. In the first experiment, we solicited golfers after they played a full round of golf and asked them to judge the size of the golf hole. We found that judged hole size was negatively correlated with the players’ performance that day. Players who played better judged the hole to be bigger. This finding is consistent with our early finding that softball players who are batting better judge the ball as being bigger (Witt & Proffitt, 2005
However, while course score correlated with apparent hole size, handicap did not. Thus, perception may not be a function of how good a player is but rather how good that player is playing at that specific moment. Our sample of golfers was somewhat limited to relatively unskilled golfers, so we are not sure if this statement would generalize over a wider range of abilities that include very skilled or professional golfers. In Experiment 1, the mean handicap was 18.2, and in Studies 2 and 3, only 38% of all subjects had experience with golf. It would be interesting to see how golfer's perception of the hole changes from day to day and whether the variation in perception differs across levels of expertise.
Apparent cup size correlated with putting performance on the last hole but not with overall performance on the last hole suggesting that these effects are specific to the relevant task. Based on data from the last hole, the apparent size of the hole is only influenced by performance on tasks that directly involve the hole. In this case, the only relevant task involving the hole's size was putting, not driving or hitting. Except for those seemingly miraculous shots in which the ball happens to go into the cup from outside of the putting green, hole size becomes relevant only when putting. Consequently, performance on strokes other than putting ought not to contribute to the apparent size of the golf cup.
Finally, in these studies, apparent size was not related to subjective measures of performance. Players who thought they were playing better did not necessarily report the hole as appearing bigger. Only actual performance affected the recalled size of the golf cup. As a result, the apparent size of the cup may be independent of several traits of the player including perhaps their confidence, optimism, or general attitude towards themselves. Since these traits can affect performance (Stone, Lynch, Sjomeling, & Darley, 1999
), one might think they would have also affected perception. However, more detailed experiments would be needed before making any definite claims about the relationship between attitude and perception.
In the last two experiments, university students putted golf balls on a turf putting mat from a location close to the hole or one that was far from it. Then they judged the size of the hole either from memory (Study 2) or while still viewing the hole (Study 3). In both experiments, participants who putted from the closer location drew the matching circle to be bigger than participants who putted from the far location. The results of Study 3 demonstrate that people's putting performance can affect their perception of the hole's size, as opposed to just inducing a memory bias.
Although these results suggest that a relationship exists between performance and perception, the causal direction of this finding is unclear. For example, do golfers putt better, and therefore, see the hole as bigger, or do they see the hole as bigger, and therefore, putt better? The current experiments do not speak to this question; however, we speculate that the relationship is reciprocal such that perception and performance likely influence each other.
Our findings are consistent with other research showing effects of action potential on perception. Targets that are placed just beyond arm's reach look closer when a perceiver intends to reach with a tool than when the perceiver intends to reach without the tool (Witt, Proffitt, & Epstein, 2005
). Hills look steeper (Bhalla & Proffitt, 1999
) and distances look farther (Proffitt, Stefanucci, Banton, & Epstein, 2003
) when the perceiver wears a heavy backpack, and thus, would have to exert more energy to walk. Similarly, targets look farther away when people have to throw a heavy ball compared with a light ball to them (Witt, Proffitt, & Epstein, 2004
). In all of these experiments, the optical information was held constant, yet perception varied depending on the perceiver's ability to perform the intended action.
In summary, our results demonstrate that people's perceptions of target size are scaled by their current abilities to act effectively on the target. In turn, golfers who are playing better see the hole as bigger relative to golfers who are not playing as well.