October 10, 2010


Choke!: A psychologist’s new look at why we choke under pressure, and what we can do about it (Chris Berdik | October 10, 2010, Boston Globe)

[A]ccording to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, choking is rooted in science, not the supernatural--as are techniques to avoid it. In her lab, Beilock ratchets up the pressure on subjects performing all sorts of cognitive and athletic tasks while sampling their stress hormones and scanning their brains. She has found that worry can turn our strengths--such as superior reasoning skills or a supportive crowd--against us.

In her new book, ”Choke” (Free Press, September 2010), Beilock argues that doing well under pressure begins with understanding the demands that different types of performance make on the brain. [...]

IDEAS: Are some people natural born chokers?

BEILOCK: I wouldn’t go that far. But there are traits that can make people more susceptible to poor performance in pressure situations. Surprisingly, one is having a lot of working memory, what I call cognitive horsepower.

Doing academic tasks in our lab, we’ve found that people with the most thinking and reasoning power report the same levels of stress as people with lower cognitive horsepower, and they show similar stress-hormone levels, but they lose the most in their performance when we raise the stakes and up the pressure. That’s because they are used to relying on their superior thinking and reasoning power for demanding academic tests, instead of using shortcuts, and that working memory gets zapped by pressure and worry.

IDEAS: How does that translate onto the playing field?

BEILOCK: There are a lot of examples in athletics where people try to flex their prefrontal cortex, where working memory is housed, and it slows down and mucks up well-practiced skills that are better run on autopilot using procedural memory.

There is a study with collegiate baseball players in a batting cage where pressure is increased by telling them that they’re being videotaped and that their coaches are going to watch the videos and analyze how they performed. After a couple bad swings, the players started paying more and more attention to the mechanics of their swing and tinkering with things and it snowballed. So, sometimes it’s better to turn off your prefrontal cortex.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2010 8:25 PM
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