Peak Performers Such as Olympic Athletes Process Information Differently, Say Colorado State University Psychology Professors

Note to Reporters: A photo of Matthew Rhodes is available with the news release at

Chances are, some Olympic athletes this week are experiencing that sensation often reported by peak performers – that the world moves in slow motion when they’re at their best.

Colorado State University psychology professors have documented that sensation in a new study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, proving that expertise really makes the world slow down.

Assistant Professors Matthew Rhodes and David McCabe tested the reactions of 144 psychology students to 80 words that flashed randomly across a computer screen. Of the 80 words, 20 related directly to American football (“pigskin”, “touchdown”), 20 were ambiguous but could be applied to football (“huddle”, “interception”) and 40 had no relation to football. Students were asked to judge the length of time a word appeared on the screen. Rhodes and McCabe also measured their participants’ knowledge of American football via a questionnaire.

The study found that students with the most knowledge of football rated football words as staying on the screen longer than their counterparts who did not know as much about football.

“Your knowledge of an area has to do with how fast you perceive that things are happening,” Rhodes said. “What you know about a domain makes it easier to navigate that domain.”

“The more you know about football, the longer you think that word sits on the screen – you process those words more fluently,” Rhodes said. “We know that time seems to slow down from athletes’ anecdotes, but we believe this is the first study that actually addresses individual differences in time perception as a function of expertise.”

Rhodes’ research focuses on memory performance and the mechanisms that guide judgments. He studies human memory, memory and aging and our understanding of cognition.

McCabe studies cognitive psychology, with a particular interest in memory performance across the adult life span. He uses a combination of experimental and individual differences methodologies to study working memory, conscious recollection, and memory accuracy.