Why Some People Fall Apart Under Pressure
Stress can make us overthink to the point of becoming self-conscious.
Why do some people choke under pressure, while others thrive?
It boils down to overthinking to the point we’re so self-conscious we don’t just perform poorly, we perform worse than we should — worse than our “skill level dictates or than [we] have performed in the past,” explains psychologist Sian Beilock, PhD, in an interview with New Scientist. Beilock is the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, which chronicles her research into why people fall apart under pressure.
When stressed, our brains function differently. Our prefrontal cortex, the seat of our working memory and ability to prioritize what’s relevant in order for us to focus, becomes overloaded and faulty. This allows all sorts of worries and details to crowd in, some of which wouldn’t normally be on our radar. “We focus on aspects of what we are doing that should be out of consciousness,” Beilock tells Smithsonian.
“A computer is a good analogy,” she tells New Scientist. “If you’re running lots of programs at once, everything slows down. If you add worry to the mix, the attention needed to focus on the task can go awry.”
Take golfers, for instance, whom Beilock has studied. With an audience and a monetary prize, highly skilled golfers were 20% less accurate on close-range putts than they were without the stress of an audience or the promise of reward.
But while choking is most obvious — and perhaps devastating — in the world of professional sports, the task could be anything and the audience and the reward, any size or kind. As soon as stakes are introduced, the pressure is on — whether it’s an event at the Olympics or a friendly game of gully cricket for bragging rights. In fact, when a moment is all in good fun or supportive, performance might be more likely to crumble: Research suggests individuals are more likely to choke in front of friendly audiences.
And, perhaps counterintuitively, choking might be more common the smarter you are. Beilock has led research that involved completing complicated maths problems by using an algorithm (requiring more working memory) or a shortcut (requiring less); people who were able to use the algorithm choked more frequently when stressed than people who used the shortcut when stressed. “It’s the people with the most working memory who are most susceptible to poor performance,” she says.
But what of the people who excel under pressure? As it turns out — they may not be excelling so much as they are simply not falling apart in the face of stress.
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“The idea that people perform better under pressure is a myth,” psychologist Tim Pychyl, director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, tells Gizmodo, adding that he can’t think of one study that supports the pop theory that some people work best down to the wire, but knows of many studies that debunk it. While individuals respond differently to pressure, and the effects of stress on their performance range across a spectrum (with the epic fail of choking as one extreme), all effects are negative.
Given how even the pros are prone to choking when the heat is on, Beilock suggests doing something inane to take the edge off. Singing, perhaps, or whistling. “If the tasks are automatic and you have done them a thousand times in the past, a mild distraction such as whistling can help them run off more smoothly under pressure,” she says in a statement.
She has also conducted studies that suggest 10 minutes of meditation or journaling about fears and worries before the ‘big event’ can improve performance.
Ultimately, she suggests staying positive. Don’t imagine worst-case scenarios or likely pitfalls, but focus on the preparation that has brought you to this point.
“Think about the journey, not the outcome,” Beilock says in the statement. “Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch or to succeed in other ways when facing life’s challenges.”
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.