This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

I made it! Effects of perceptions of success and enhanced expectancies on motor learning and its underlying mechanisms




Parma, Juliana Otoni

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




This dissertation describes a program of research encompassing three studies that focused on examining the effects of enhanced expectancies and perceptions of success on motor learning. OPTIMAL theory (Wulf & Lewthwaite, 2016) proposes that practice manipulations that enhance a learner’s expectations for future successful outcomes lead to better motor performance and learning due to increased goal-action coupling and motor memory consolidation. These effects are expected to be achieved through an increase in motivation fostered by the fulfillment of a learner’s basic psychological need to feel competent. Establishing an easy criterion of success during practice is a way to decrease a learner`s perception of task difficulty and results in an enhanced expectancy of performing well, which is expected to cause reward anticipation at the neural level. Importantly, a learner’s expectations tend to be fulfilled, since performance outcomes will be interpreted as successful more frequently, which can affect the likelihood and the value of the achieved rewards, as well as the quantity of cognitive resources devoted to motor programming. Given that motor performance and learning influence and are influenced by feedback-related and motor-preparatory brain activity, we developed a research program combining a series of behavioral, psychophysiological, and meta-analytical studies to uncover how task manipulations that affect learners’ expectancies and perceptions of success can affect motor skill acquisition and its underlying neural processes. The first study (Chapter 1), published in the International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology (Bacelar et al., 2022), used a meta-analytical method to estimate the average and individual effect size of six types of manipulations to enhance expectancies in motor learning research. Results showed that, on average, enhancing learners’ expectancies has a significant effect on skill retention (g = 0.54 (95% CI [0.38, 0.69]) that is dependent on the type of manipulation adopted. However, evidence of reporting bias and small-study effects in this literature suggest that these effects are likely overestimated. The second study (Chapter 2), published in the Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Parma et al., 2023), is a behavioral experiment that sought to investigate the effect of perceived task difficulty, a manipulation to enhance expectancies, on learning. Learners with the same goal were provided with different criteria of success during the practice of a motor skill. Results showed that, contrary to the predictions of OPTIMAL theory, perceived task difficulty has a trivial, if any, behavioral effect on skill retention, even though learners with an easier criterion of success develop higher self-efficacy, perceived competence, and, for those performing more practice trials, increased intrinsic motivation. Lastly, the third study (Chapter 3) investigated how perceived and objective success affect psychophysiological measures of feedback processing (i.e., reward positivity [RewP] amplitude) and movement preparation (i.e., motor upper-alpha power). Specifically, we recorded learners’ electroencephalograms while they acquired a motor skill with an easy or difficult criterion of success. Mixed-effects regression models were used to uncover how perception of success, objective success (error magnitude), and practice trial number affect RewP amplitude and motor upper-alpha power on a trial-by-trial basis. Results show that both subjective (perception of success) and objective (error magnitude) reward have a significant effect on feedback processing, with a larger effect from the former. Additionally, the relationship between feedback processing and error magnitude seems to depend on a learner’s assigned criterion of success. For motor-preparatory brain activity, the effects of subjective and objective success are dependent on experience with the task, and seem to affect motor programming more than motor execution. Also, assigning learners’ criteria for success moderates this relationship. Together, this sequence of studies indicates that, although the effects of practice manipulations of expectancies of success on performance and learning are negligible, if existent, a learner’s perception of success affects underlying neurophysiological and psychological mechanisms of motor skill acquisition related to feedback processing, movement preparation, and motivation.