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10 September 2015

The Great British Bake Off: a life lesson in confidence and defeatism

How the varying levels of confidence of each baker affect their performance – and their fate.

By Helen Thomas

Contains spoilers!

Week Six in The Great British Bake Off tent brought cheese parcels, lots of soggy bottoms and even a few tears. The contestants were challenged in the art of pastry making, and whilst some stood tall like Mat’s triumphant vol-au-vent, others withered and toppled over like Nadiya’s.

But ultimately it was everyone’s favourite baking nurse Alvin who was sent home with a heavy heart this week. Once again he was beaten by his dual enemies of time and perfectionism, and was persistently apologising as he received Paul Hollywood’s criticism (which included calling Alvin’s cheese pie “flaounes” pizzas. How rude).

Characteristically, it only took 09:10 minutes before Alvin was expressing feelings of frustration and fear in the tent this week. Nervously, he wrapped up his shortcrust pastry for a second time before rolling it out into his frangipane tart base. He looked down in anguish like a schoolboy facing the headmaster’s wrath when Hollywood chided him for his combination of overbaked pastry and underbaked filling. “It’s wrong…” he murmured. “I’m so sorry.”

It was heartbreaking to watch the baker apologise for his mistakes as though he were doing them a great disservice by serving up delicious food. I wouldn’t turn down your tart, Alvin. It had quite wonderful plums.

Was the moment he apologised for his frangipane the moment of our Alvin’s undoing?

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In 2004, Oliver Compte and Andrew Postlewaite from the American Economic Review looked at how negative emotions, particularly related to fear and judgement, can seriously diminish performance. Everyone knows it’s hard to lift yourself out of a defeatist phunk, especially when dealing with dough. Accept your cake’s gonna be shit and there is no way you will pipe on that icing like a pro. Not that attempting to salvage a doomed bake is often a consolation – attempting to disguise a burnt crust with amoretti biscuits just ain’t gonna cut it under the cold scrutiny of Paul Hollywood.

But then there was Tamal, who admitted his desire to win Star Baker in front of the cameras, and subsequently fell to the bottom of the technical for his un-sesame seeded flaounes and struggled to produce upstanding vol-au-vents to hold his overflowing fillings of spicy chicken and coriander and pulled pork. Later on they were described as “hideously deformed” by Tamal as they fell over at 90 degree angles and poured hipster pork all over the black slate underneath.

So did Tamal really jinx his luck by saying he wanted to be Star Baker? Maybe he should have touched wood. An experiment published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that participants who were asked to tempt fate and subsequently cleared their thoughts by knocking down on a (wooden) table were far less likely to perceive a bad outcome happening than those who didn’t, or knocked upwards on the underside of the table.

The winner of this week’s Star Baker was perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole episode. Mat managed to maintain his chugging along, happy-go-lucky attitude as he served up a his n’ hers showstopper with quite possibly the poshest all-day breakfast to ever find its way into pastry. Mat; the man we all thought was coasting along in class, never pushing himself, making coconut ice cream with coconut, for example. But the fireman has shown resilience and clearly doesn’t take the whole thing too seriously. While that may be his downfall at times, it was clear from his performance last night that the perfect balance between optimism, confidence, and thinking “fuck it, I’m going to do this anyway” is a winning formula (as long as you’ve got the goods to back it up).

Next week the tent goes old school with some delicious 19th-century creations. Who will channel their inner Mrs Beaton, and who will be asking for more?

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