Freakonomics: Why we choke under pressure (and how not to)

This article comes from a podcast called Freakonomics. You can find the original podcast and full transcript here: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/choking/

Sian Beilock, cognitive scientist, and president of Barnard College at Columbia University. Author of the book Choke. “I define choking as worse performance than you’d expect from an individual, given that there is high pressure or stakes associated with the situation.”

“I really think that any situation where there’s expectations for success can cause choking, and it doesn’t have to be the Olympic Games. It can be when you’re parallel parking, and people around you are watching, right? Or if you’re in an elevator and you’re trying to figure out whether you’re going to say something to the person next to you. We talk about these epic moments of choking, but it’s a desire to perform at our best, and situations in which we’re evaluated happen constantly.”

“We know that when women are aware of stereotypes that they shouldn’t perform well — maybe they’re aware of stereotypes that men are better at math, even though I think these stereotypes are quite unfounded — just being aware of that can affect how they perform. And it can be because you’re anxious about math, and so you can’t calculate the tip on the dinner bill as your smart friends look on, or it could be because you’re a girl in a room full of men, trying to think and compute math problems, and you’re aware that there’s ideas out there that you shouldn’t be as good at what you’re doing.”

“There’s research showing that when you have friendly faces in front of you, people who are supportive — although that could feel nice, it actually creates pressure-filled situations. You often start thinking of yourself as they might. And so when my mother is in the room, I sometimes think of myself as a young girl. And you also are quite self-conscious.”

This next interchange between Beilock and the interviewer Steven Dubner describes some ideas for preventing choking under pressure:

BEILOCK: So we investigated whether going quicker, for example, might help eliminate poor performance under pressure, or having one key swing thought that encapsulates your entire stroke might be better. And we showed that some of that was successful. And it leads to the opposite idea, that if you really want to mess your buddy up on the back nine, you just say, “Hey that was a great shot. What were you doing with your elbow?”

DUBNER: Great, so you’re helping us make people choke more. But what else can you tell us about — in this domain at least — learning to choke less?

BEILOCK: We also showed that getting used to this type of hyper-attention to detail that sometimes comes with performance can be helpful. So, really inoculating yourself against the high-pressure situations. You see this with students who practice taking timed tests. You see this with military pilots, and firefighters, and people who practice under some of the types of conditions they’re going to perform under. And you even see this if you walk by a college football stadium Friday afternoon — the music blaring, getting the players used to what it’s going to feel like in that big stadium. And this is true in really big important situations, but it’s also true in those little things we do every day. So, if you’re going to give a toast at a wedding, practicing doing it while people are watching you. And if no one is willing to watch you, videotape yourself — anything that gets you used to the kinds of all eyes on you.

DUBNER: Okay, so put yourself in realistic and stressful practice situations. What else?

BEILOCK: We know, on the athletic field, invoking ways to take your mind off the step-by-step of what you’re doing in the moment, especially on those easier performances. So whether it’s singing a song, or thinking about your pinky toe, or thinking about where you want the ball to land rather than how it’s going to get there.

DUBNER: So, it sounds like if you would summarize all of those activities under one umbrella, it might be like distracting your mind or streamlining it. How do you think about that?

BEILOCK: I’d say controlling what you’re focusing on.

DUBNER: Okay, so controlling what you’re focusing on; realistic practice situations; what else?

BEILOCK: Rethinking how you’re feeling. So, we know that when people remind themselves that sweaty palms and beating heart aren’t a sign they’re going to fail, but a sign that they’re awake and ready to go, and their body is shunting important nutrients to their mind, that can be really effective.

DUBNER: Now, is that a charade, or is that real? I mean, if my palms are sweaty, isn’t that an indication that I am anxious, and that if I just tell myself, “Well it’s not really anxiety, it’s really my body shunting nutrients,” Is that a self-lie that I profit from, or is that realistically a counter-truth?

BEILOCK: First of all I will just say that I like placebo effects, and I have no problem with that. But I think it’s a real truth, because if your heart wasn’t beating, to some extent, you’d be dead, right? And those sweaty palms can be an indication that you’re alert, and aroused, and ready to go. And arousal doesn’t have to be a bad thing, right? It’s bad when we start thinking it’s bad, and then we just start changing our performance.

DUBNER: I love how your counterfactual is always, “Or, you could be dead.” So that is a very useful. I mean, that’s inspiring. Like, I don’t want that.

BEILOCK: Yeah. It’s a good opposition.

DUBNER: It’s a great opposition, yeah. No, I’m serious, I totally like it. Because another piece of advice I’ve always heard is like, “Envision the worst outcome, right, and then think about how this will not be anywhere near as bad as that.” Like if I’m about to hit a high-stakes golf shot, I think, “Well what if instead, like, the club head comes off the club in the backswing and kills my friend?”

BEILOCK: Yeah, that’s way worse!

DUBNER: That’s way worse! So anything from there is like gravy.

BEILOCK: Yeah, and we’ve actually shown that getting people to just jot down their thoughts and worries can be beneficial, just sort of downloading them from mind when they feel stressed out. And one of the things that that does is get you to realize maybe it’s not such a big deal, right? What you’re doing is not as big of a deal as your friend getting hit with the club and dying.

DUBNER: Again, always comes back to dying. What about other means of directing the mind, whether meditation, perhaps?

BEILOCK: There’s lots of research showing that meditative practices can help change how you focus, and your ability to focus on what you want, and get rid of what you don’t. That’s true with visualizing positive performance outcomes ahead of time, and really focusing on why you should succeed. What are the factors that you’ve practiced well? You’ve got this. You’ve had situations like this in the past and they’ve gone really well.