Athletic Insight - The Online Journal of Sport Psychology

A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Positive Illusions and
Sport Performance Levels of Basketball Players

Peter Catina
Department of Health and Human Development
The Pennsylvania State University.

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This study examined the relationships between positive illusion and sport performance of basketball players among 3 cultures: The United States of America (U.S.A.), Croatia, and Norway. The model tested depicts positive illusion as the main predictor variable and basketball players’ performance as the criterion variable. The Positive Illusion Sport Scale (Catina, 2000) was used to measure the predictor variable while a standardized system was used to measure the criterion variable. Participants were 239 male basketball players. Results showed that positive illusion was directly related to actual success and was statistically significant USA N = 122 (r) =.320, Croatia N = 57 (r) =.532, Norway N = 60 (r) =.403, p < .05, and consistent with positive illusion as a theoretical construct for predicting success in sport.


       The term positive illusion represents a multidimensional psychological dimension consisting of the following three sub-constructs: self-aggrandizement, illusion of control, and unrealistic optimism (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Self-aggrandizement is the perception of one's self, one's past behavior, and one's enduring attributes as more positive than is actually the case. Illusion of control is an exaggerated belief in one's personal control, involving the perception that one can bring about primarily positive but not negative outcomes. Unrealistic optimism is the perception that the future holds an idealistically bountiful array of opportunities and an absence of adverse events. These positive illusions are common in mentally healthy individuals and become especially important in the athletic arena (Catina & Iso-Ahola, 2004).

       The theory of positive illusion has been well established in the literature, but an assessment tool that measures positive illusion has only recently begun to be recognized. The implementation of a theory-based instrument assessing the factors that influence levels of success in sport is necessary to understand the role of positive illusion in sport-performance outcomes. Although a host of psychological factors examined in the literature such as anxiety, hardiness, locus of control and intrinsic motivation offers insight into explaining sport performance (Iso-Ahola, 1995), positive illusion has not been fully addressed as a variable influencing favorable outcomes in sport.

       Other studies have shown differences in athletes and differences in cultures thus extending knowledge about how cultures may, for example, influence perception and motivation. The current study avoids the often misleading approach of item-construction where the significance of various personality traits may vary across different types of situations. It extends the universality of the Scale in important ways by grounding the items of the Positive Illusion Sport Scale (Catina, 2000) and coupling those items with the Basketball Evaluation System (Swalgin, 1998) in a specific sport context common to the three cultures sampled. Previous research using the scale with individual sports has revealed emerging patterns that are similar to those found in team sports. The current study brings to light a striking resemblance in the mental aspect of athletes from three different cultures. Namely, levels of positive illusion are consistent in basketball players from the USA, Croatia, and Norway. Additionally, the way in which positive illusion operates as a predictor variable for success is a common thread both within and between each of the cultures sampled.

       In relation to fear of failure, there is an extreme sense of shame marked by personal inadequacy, diminished sense of control, and a sense of worthlessness. These negative feelings can be overcome by adopting positive illusions. This type of cognitive adaptation is based on fostering emotional adjustment by instilling a sense of optimism and regaining a perception of control over one’s life. Since there is a sense of mastery which can be gained through the use of positive illusion, it stands to reason that there is a strong and positive relationship between the construct of positive illusion and the constructs of self-esteem and optimism.

       For example, Taylor (1983) advances that the adjustment process of cancer patients is centered around three themes: a search for meaning in the experience, an attempt to regain mastery over the event, and an effort to restore self-esteem through self-enhancing evaluations. Other researchers have found similar attributes. Helgeson and Cohen (1996) suggest the following five psychological mechanisms that facilitate emotional adjustment to having cancer: enhancement of self-esteem, restoration of perceived control, instilling of optimism about the future, provision of meaning for the experience, and fostering of emotional processing. A positive sense of self, a need for control, and an optimistic view of the future facilitate normal mental functioning (Taylor & Brown, 1988). This positive sense of self becomes especially important in the face of threatening social feedback (Taylor, 1983; Taylor, 1991; Taylor & Brown, 1988, 1994; Taylor & Armor, 1996; Taylor & Aspinwall, 1996). Many of the cognitive mechanisms that are present in the minds of athletes are congruent with the research literature on positive illusion. For example, Taylor (1983) proposes that the diagnosis of cancer leads to a sense of personal inadequacy, diminished sense of control, increased feelings of vulnerability, and a sense of despondency and that these negative feelings can be overcome by adopting positive illusions. This can easily be seen within the realm of fear of failure in athletes and the consequences of such failure.

       Concerning performance outcomes in sport, the construct of positive illusion provides a coping strategy for failure through a positive view of the self and an elevated belief in personal control. Current research is focused on whether or not these self-enhancing beliefs may increase the likelihood of success in sport (Catina & Iso-Ahola, 2004). The substantiation of the scale will provide empirical evidence to better understand the relationship between positive illusion and sport performance. Since the athlete’s psychological mindset is widely regarded as influencing his or her behavior in sport, more assessment tools are needed in order to broaden the understanding of the mental components that facilitate success in sport. In regard to the present study, the researchers hypothesized that levels of positive illusion would be commensurate with levels of performance in basketball players across different cultures.



       The current study 0code-linked in order to protect anonymity. Ranges in age were noticeably different among the 3 countries since it is not as unusual to have players over the age of 25 in Croatia and Norway, as it is in the United States. Originally, a low number of subjects (N = 15) had to be eliminated because they did not complete the basketball season. The participation rate of 90% was exceptionally high in this study.

Instruments and Measures

       The Positive Illusion Sport Scale (Catina, 2000) is a 23-item, psychological inventory measuring cognitive characteristics in competitive athletes. It was developed to calculate the degree to which positive illusion was associated with sport performance. Convergent (scores correlate highly with factors predicted to correlate highly with) and discriminant (scores correlate poorly with factors predicted to correlate poorly with) validities were assessed by correlating scores from the Positive Illusion Sport Scale with scores of self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965), hopelessness (Beck & Steer, 1978), optimism (Sheier & Carver, 1985), and depression (Beck, Rial, & Rickels, 1974). The Scale showed a moderate positive correlation with self-esteem and optimism and a moderate negative correlation with hopelessness and depression. The internal consistencies for the Self-Esteem, Optimism, Hopelessness, and Depression scales were high with alpha coefficients of .88, .89, .90, and .90 respectively. Cronbach’s alpha indicated high internal consistency for the Positive Illusion Sport Scale at .84. These findings demonstrate considerable convergent and discriminant validity for the instrument and indicate that it is psychometrically accurate for research purposes (Catina & Iso-Ahola, in press).

       The Basketball Evaluation System (Swalgin, 1998) produces a standardized score for basketball performance based on the following criteria: Position of play, time played, and game conditions. The accuracy of the model lies in the fact that it incorporates the following 3 measurement concepts: a common set of sport-specific performance criteria, a norm-based context to measure the criteria, and a functional measurement system inherent to the structure of the sport.


       The Positive Illusion Sport Scale was administered to basketball players in the United States, Croatia, and Norway through their respective coaches. The protocols were such that a blind data collection method was established in order to prevent research bias. Namely, the researchers kept the scores from the psychological inventory separate from the basketball statistics until all data had been recorded. Scores from the Positive Illusion Sport Scale were correlated to scores from the Basketball Evaluation System, a standardized grading system for basketball performance based on position of play, time played, and game conditions.


       A positive linear relationship was found between positive illusion scores and basketball evaluation system scores, which supported the directional hypothesis. Moderately positive Pearson Product-Moment Correlations (r) between positive illusion and basketball performance levels were as follows: USA (r) = .320, Croatia (r) = .532, Norway (r) = .403.

       A subsequent analysis was conducted to see if there were cultural differences in levels of positive illusion. The Chi-Squares test was selected because sample size and level of measurement called for a distribution-free, non-parametric test to measure differences in positive illusion rank across the different cultures sampled. Multiple t tests were not appropriate due to sample size variation. A Chi-Square X2(46, N= )=45.967, p= ,was calculated for USA. The critical value needed to reach statistical significance was 61.54 (Bordens & Abbot, 1998, appendix A-15). Calculations for Croatia were X2 (30, N=) =21.25, p= , against a critical value of 43.77. Calculations for Norway were X2 (28, N=)=24.10, p= against a critical value of 41.33. Since none of the Chi-Square statistics even approached critical values, differences in positive illusion across the different cultures sampled were not statistically significant at p >. 05. This indicates that the construct of positive illusion operates in a similar manner across the sampled cultures (Table 1).

Positive Illusions Table 1

       A factor analysis was conducted to identify underlying variables, or factors, that could explain the pattern of correlations within the set of observed variables from USA, Croatia, and Norway. A Principal Components Analysis (Bentler, 2004) using an orthogonal Varimax rotation identified the factor “Illusion of Control” that explained most of the variance observed in a much larger number of manifest variables. This technique is helpful in generating hypotheses regarding causal mechanisms within the multi-dimensional construct of positive illusion.

       As outlined above, positive illusion has three sub-constructs that were reflected in three sub-scales during scale construction: The illusion of control sub-scale is a 9-item scale used to assess exaggerated beliefs of personal control. The self-aggrandizement sub-scale is a 5-item scale designed to assess overly positive self-perceptions, and the unrealistic optimism sub-scale is a 9-item scale measuring unrealistically optimistic views of the future. These measures were combined to form an aggregate score for positive illusion. The purpose of structure detection is to examine the underlying relationships between the variables thereby uncovering patterns of association with sport performance among the different cultures sampled (Table 2).

Positive Illusions Table 2

       Of particular interest is the consistency in which “Illusion of Control” accounted for most of the variance across all of the cultures sampled (Table 3).

Positive Illusions Table 3

       There was also an exceptionally strong similarity between USA and Norway in the domain of “Illusion of Control” with the USA and Norway reaching Eigenvalues of 1.899 and 1.874 respectively. Each of these values in “Illusion of Control” accounted for 63.291% and 62.478% of the respective variance in the sample (Table 4).

Positive Illusions Table 4


       These results, along with others (Catina & Iso-Ahola, 2004) provide support for the reliability and validity of the Positive Illusion Sport Scale as a measure of positive illusion in competitive athletes. The current study increases the reliability for the Scale since it has been used in other domains (i.e., individual sports versus team sports). However, this is the first attempt at establishing cross-cultural validity, which makes this study particularly rich. More research is needed to further validate the measure, especially it if is to be used for teaching and cultivating positive illusion in athletes who may have low levels in this cognitive dimension.

       Further sequencing of these statistical procedures can be justified by the successful demonstration of the utility of the scale in a sport performance framework (Catina & Iso-Ahola, 2004). Given that no other scale of positive illusion exists, cultivating this new measure is necessary to create and employ predictive models for researchers to further assess its utility across a broader range of sport contexts. The Positive Illusion Sport Scale evolved from an empirical thrust specifically intended to create a scale with unique structural and construct validity qualities. Conceptually, the Scale is based on the well-established theory of positive illusion which may have a high degree of relevance to researchers interested in understanding more about the role of this cognitive construct in human performance.


       Much of cross-cultural psychology focuses on describing the psychology of different groups of people without attempting to explain the cultural basis of these psychological differences. Therefore, it either misunderstands the manner in which cultural factors shape psychology or fails to address those factors completely. For example, self-efficacy is widely noted in the research literature, however, little research has been done to examine it from a cross-cultural perspective. Self-efficacy is a powerful predictor for performance; especially sport performance. Self-efficacy expectations are beliefs that one can successfully execute behavior required to produce particular outcomes (Bandura, 1977). They derive from the relationship between one’s perceptions of self-competence on a particular dimension and the relevance of the dimension to the task being confronted. Positive illusions enhance the self-concept indirectly by increasing self-efficacy. Consequently, this provides the athlete with the affirmative belief system needed to overcome the odds or to cope with extreme adversity inherent in athletic competition.

       One must consider the way positive illusion operates in team sports when compared to individual sports. What is psychologically important to an individual depends strongly on what is salient to that person’s identity in relationship to the activity in which he or she is engaged. The importance of identity is more closely associated with individualistic cultures rather than with collectivistic cultures (Williams, Satterwhite, & Saiz, 1998). The importance of identity in close-work relationships like team sports may be greater in individualistic countries than in collectivistic countries, due to work and leisure being more highly differentiated in individualistic countries. Given the patterns unveiled in the data, it is reasonable to conclude that Norway, Croatia, and the United States behave as individualistic countries. In fact, the importance of identity has been shown to be very high in these three countries (Williams et al., 1998).

       So many of the cultural variables examined by cross-cultural psychologists are abstract in that they are devoid of concrete content which reflect a specific domain. This type of abstraction results when a factor is confused as a variable with a singular fixed character. The development and use of psychological instruments are ways to reduce or eliminate this confusion. The Positive Illusion Sport Scale is a measure which defines itself as a psychological factor that is qualitatively invariant and only varies quantitatively.

       The results of the present study indicate that the construct of positive illusion operates in a similar manner across the sampled cultures (i.e., there was no statistical difference in levels of positive illusion among the three different cultures of basketball players sampled). These findings support the robustness of the scale and the pervasiveness of positive illusion as a psychological construct. One striking feature in the data revealed a very strong connection across all the cultures sampled in the domain of “Illusion of Control”. This particular cognitive characteristic was extremely prevalent in all teams across all cultures measured.

       Many analysts find obvious ways in which cultures are different. The present study has found one way in which cultures are similar. Thus, implicating to some extent that athletes are similar, especially from a psychological perspective. The construct of positive illusion seems to have cross-cultural validity and is a universal personality dimension both from a theoretical perspective as well as a practical perspective.

       A plausible reason for positive illusion to be such a strong predictor variable for success in sport is that it may be an evolutionary trait necessary for survival. Evidence suggests that emotional affect constructs like optimism and motivation are more consistent with evolutionary biology than with social constructivist perspectives (Church, Katigbak, Reyes, & Jensen, 1999).

       In line with the biological basis for optimism and motivation, the construct of positive illusion provides a type of overconfidence which may be adaptive, in the sense that it provides a psychological advantage in the sports arena. The athlete is not trapped by overcautiousness resulting in missed opportunities; rather his or her performance is facilitated by increased motivation, confidence, and persistence governed by a positively skewed interpretation of reality, which leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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Positive Illusions Appendix A

Send all correspondence to: Peter Catina, Ph.D., Penn State York, Department of Health and Human Development, 1031 Edgecomb Avenue, York, PA. 17403-3398 USA, [email protected], 717-771-4096

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