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The science of choking under pressure — and how to avoid it

Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid during the Spanish League match in 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.
Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid during the Spanish League match in 2014 in Barcelona, Spain.
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At the Olympics, even the most rehearsed athletes can crack under the pressure. There's something about high-stakes situations that seems to destroy people's ability to do well. And many of us non-athletes have been there too.

But why does choking happen, and how can we stop it? Over the past decade, researchers have shed a lot of light on this once-mysterious question. That's mostly because of the work of Sian Beilock. She's a psychologist at the University of Chicago who has been studying why people fail when the pressure is on. She even wrote the book on it: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have to.

"I think there's always been lots of work in psychology and neuroscience asking about the building blocks of high-level performance, but less work asking how stress and emotional reaction might interfere with our ability to show what we know or perform at our best," she told me. "I think [choking] wasn't necessarily thought of as something that was open to scientific inquiry."

Here's what scientists have discovered about choking:

Really hating losing — and being smarter — could make you more likely to choke

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It's not just bigger stakes that make people choke. Studies have shown that people who are more likely to choke under pressure have several things in common.

One is loss aversion. Loss aversion is when you really, really do not want to lose the prize. And when the potential prize is big, people with high loss aversion are generally more likely to choke than people with low loss aversion.

(One way to
test how loss-averse people are is to do something like offer them a chance to gamble on games with different odds. The loss-averse people generally prefer a game with a better chance of not losing than a long shot for a big payout.)

Smarter people also choke more. Specifically, Beilock has found that people who have greater working memory (the amount of stuff you can actively hold in your mind at once) are more prone to choking when doing math problems in a high-pressure situation.

One reason for that? These people are used to being able to get by with their big working memories to solve these problems. But when their working memory gets clogged with worry, they have to switch to using other kinds of strategies that they're not as accustomed to. This ends up taking away some of their natural advantages.

Researchers have found strategies to avoid choking

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No matter who you are, learning to perform well under pressure is a skill you can work on and get better at. And there are some studies suggesting specific methods that help.

1) Practice under pressure. Beilock has shown that practicing under stressful conditions can minimize the chances of choking.

For example, in one study she had a bunch of college students learn golf putting. Some students practiced under a high-pressure condition: They were told that they were being videotaped for later analysis by golf experts. Others practiced normally.

Later, everyone was tested under a high-stakes situation (in which not doing well basically meant letting down your partner as well as missing out on a cash prize). Those who had practiced under high-pressure conditions ended up doing better than those who had experienced low-pressure training.

2) Distract yourself a bit. For physical tasks, such as sports competitions, many people end up thinking too hard about what they're doing, which can throw them off. Beilock has shown that experienced golfers actually do worse when encouraged to focus on the skill at hand. So she has suggested self-distraction — like, for example, focusing on a golf ball's dimples or singing a song.

3) Don't dilly-dally. Beilock has demonstrated that doing a task relatively quickly seems to help. For example, in one study she found that experienced golfers putted better when instructed to putt quickly while still being accurate. (Though the opposite was true with novices.) So if you're doing something you know how to do really well, taking extra time could make you more susceptible to choking.

4) Express your emotions before you start. Beilock's research group has also shown that writing about one's feelings before a test can help. In a study published in Science in 2011, they explored this by having college students take a very difficult math exam. (Sara Reardon has a good summary for Science's news section.) To boost the pressure, the researchers put some cash on the line and videotaped the subjects, telling them the tape would be shown to their teachers and friends.

And if that wasn't enough, they also told the students that a partner in the experiment had already taken the test, performed well, and would disappointed if they didn't do well too. Eek.

But those who were told to write about their feelings for 10 minutes before the test did better than those in a comparison group who simply wrote about an event in their past. This trick worked outside the laboratory too. The researchers repeated the experiment with real-life ninth graders taking a real-life final exam and got similar results.

In a more recent study, in 2014, researchers showed that a similar expressive writing experience helped narrow the performance gap between students who were more and less anxious about math.

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