November 12, 2014

Who Chokes Under Pressure -- And Why

Performing our best under pressure is not easy, and people have different reasons for choking.

Blame it on the pressured moment: A basketball player who has hit some amazing three-pointers while avoiding the defense misses a free throw in the same close game. Most of us have experienced this kind of disappointment when the stakes are high.

Whether it's a game-changing goal, a putt to win on the 18th hole, remembering what we need to on a pop quiz, or rising to the challenge of a business pitch, the phenomenon of “choking” under pressure is simply a part of life.

But why does that shot or field goal suddenly become so much more difficult when the game depends on it, and the world is watching?

Performance under pressure seems to be influenced by how we perceive incentives regarding loss and gain, according to research from Johns Hopkins.

Those with high aversion to loss choked when they stood to gain a lot, while those with low aversion to loss choked under the prospect of large failures.

“We found that the way we framed an incentive — as a potential gain or loss — had a profound effect on participants' behavior as they performed the skilled task,” researcher Vikram Chib explained. “But the effect was different for those with high versus low aversion to loss.”

The team measured a person's aversion to loss by looking at the risk individuals were prepared to take when gambling.

Researchers monitored brain activity in participants who were given an incentive to perform well when playing a video game. The incentive came in the form of winning or losing money based on performance. They found that performance is heavily influenced by a brain area known as the ventral striatum.

Researchers performed MRIs for each participant while playing the video game. The activity of the ventral striatum increased with higher stakes. Those who were averse to loss exhibited lower brain activity and performed worse when trying to capitalize on large gains. Participants less averse to loss showed lower brain activity and performed worse when they were trying to avoid large losses. The results seem to confirm that the ventral striatum relates incentive-based motivation with performance of a given task.

The findings were the opposite of what researchers had expected. Those with high aversion to loss choked when they stood to gain a lot, while those with low aversion to loss choked under the prospect of large failures.

The hope is that the work will ultimately help people perform successfully, even when stakes are high. It’s important to note that these situations are not limited to performances in sports and on tests. Other high-pressure situations would include pilots flying in dangerous conditions, surgeons undertaking difficult surgical procedures, and astronauts navigating repairs while in orbit.

The work is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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