Ever since I was young I have been intrigued by amazing performances—at the Olympics, in the orchestra pit, and even my friend Abby’s performance on the LSAT. How do people go about turning it on when it counts the most? Why do some thrive while others falter when the stakes are high and everyone is focused on their every move? As we know, sometimes that one instance of performance—one race, one test, one presentation—can change an entire life or a career trajectory forever.
My friend Abby and I have known each other since we were both thrown in the same dorm room freshman year at the University of California, San Diego. Although Abby and I shared a love for many things—the ocean, the Grateful Dead, and sappy movies—when it came to school, we couldn’t have been more different. Throughout college I was constantly in the library studying for midterms and finals, writing papers, and rereading my notes from class. Abby was not. Now don’t get me wrong, Abby did well in school, but you were more likely to find her at the beach than at the library and the likelihood that she would be daydreaming in class far outweighed the probability that she was actually listening to the professor lecturing in front of her. What amazed me most about Abby was her ability to perform well when the stakes were high. Abby wrote most of her English papers at four o’clock in the morning the night before they were due and reliably got A’s on them, and those all-nighters in the library before finals always seemed to pay off for her.
After college, Abby decided to go to law school so she took the LSAT (the law school assessment test) and received a near perfect score. Abby took several steps to prepare for the big testing day. She bought a test-prep book and learned all the tricks of multiple-choice testing and she took practice after practice test to try to improve her score. By the time the real test day arrived, Abby was scoring in the upper quartile of all LSAT test takers, but her practice scores were nowhere near what she was able to pull off in the actual exam. Abby turned it on when it counted the most and her high performance made all the difference. In part because of that one day, that one four-hour test, Abby was admitted to the top law school in the country, had a leading firm recruiting her by the end of her first year, and landed a high-paying job when she graduated—a job that would never have been available to Abby if her performance on the LSAT had gone awry. One four-hour testing period, one-sixth of a day, changed Abby’s life forever.
Psychologists are often accused of doing “me-search,” that is, trying to understand themselves rather than “re-searching” others, and, admittedly, this holds for me as well. As a child, and even into my adulthood, I performed well on the sports field and in the classroom, but in certain situations I didn’t always attain the high-level performance I was striving for. I had one of the worst soccer games of my life playing in front of college recruiters and I could never manage to score as well on the actual SAT as I did on the many practice tests I took before the exam. Abby faced similar high-stakes situations, yet the pressures didn’t seem to faze her. Instead she thrived under them.
By the time I got to college I was hooked on figuring out why folks sometimes fail to perform at their best when the stakes are highest. I majored in cognitive science and soaked up as much as I could about how the workings of the brain drive learning and performance. But I always felt as if I was only getting half the picture.
As fascinated as I was by research on how we acquire skills such as language and math, I seldom came across people who were studying how the stresses of an important testing situation—for example, sitting for the SAT or ACT—might interfere with students’ ability to show what they are made of. Perhaps because I split my time in college between the lacrosse field and the classroom, I also wondered how my academic ability was linked to my athletic prowess. Was my nervousness before a final exam related to the pressures I felt to make the big play in the lacrosse finals? If you are the kind of person who tends to bomb big tests, does this mean that you have a high likelihood of missing the game-winning shot as well?
These issues have tantalized me since I started school, stepped onto the playing field, held a musical instrument in my hand for the first time, and watched Abby ace every test. Yet I couldn’t begin to find the answers until I went off to graduate school at Michigan State University, which provided me with the opportunity to work with professors doing seminal work in sport science, psychology, and neuroscience. Everyone thought I was crazy to move from the San Diego beaches to the snow, but my MSU education was unique in that I was able to learn about how the brain supports success in diverse performance arenas. Regardless of whether I was studying the complex decisionmaking processes involved in flying an airplane or how different parts of the brain work together to do math, my question about human performance was always the same: Why do we sometimes fail to perform at our best when it counts the most?
Early in my Ph.D. career, I convinced one of my advisers, Dr. Thomas Carr, to let me set up a putting green in his laboratory. We reasoned that if we could gain understanding into why golfers sometimes miss easy putts when there is a lot riding on their success, we might not only learn something about failure in sports, but we might also find out something interesting about why people make silly mistakes when taking a pressure-filled math test. After all, both golf and math are complex activities that take time and care to learn. And in fact we learned that, while poor performance under pressure was common in both tasks, their practitioners messed up their performances in different ways. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy performances resemble each other, but each is messed up in its own way.
Today, with the advent of new brain-imaging techniques, we can look inside the heads of players, students, and even people in the business world and make reasoned guesses about the types of programs that the brain is running. We are also able to get a handle on why these internal programs fail when people are under pressures that lead them to choke. In the past few decades, I’ve found answers to some of my nagging questions about human performance. These answers will change how you think about learning, assessments of intelligence, and talent identification—from the playing field to the classroom to the boardroom and beyond.
In Choke I present the latest information on what we psychologists know about how people learn and perform complex skills. I address questions that include: What are the brain systems that oversee how we pick up sports skills? Does the way we develop sports skills really differ from the ways we learn in the classroom or perform in the orchestra pit? How do we flub performances in these different settings? Why do some people fail while others succeed when everything is riding on their next move and the pressure to excel is at a maximum?
When I arrive in my office Monday morning, it’s not unusual for me to find several phone messages from parents who want to know why their child plays well in practice during the week, but fails during competition over the weekend, or from high school students who are interested in ensuring that the high test scores they’re receiving on their practice SATs will translate to the actual exam. I am intrigued by each and every case because it’s only by understanding how less-than-stellar performances come about that we can create the right strategies to ensure that we can succeed when it counts the most.
I give a good number of lectures for corporations every year in which I shed light on what brain science says about how to perform at our best in the heat of negotiation or when a crisis strikes. My hunch is that one of the reasons companies are eager to have me speak is that it’s hard to put a finger on exactly why unexpected failures occur when the stakes are high. Choke will change this.
As a society, we are obsessed with success, and because of this, people are constantly trying to uncover the ingredients that produce amazing performances. The flip side of the coin of success, of course, is failure. And uncovering the mechanism by which you flub an important sales pitch or bomb a negotiation provides clues for how you can perform your best in any situation.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “choking under pressure” before. People talk about the “bricks” in basketball when the game-winning free throw devolves into an airball, the “yips” in golf when an easy putt to win the tournament stops short, and “cracking” in important test-taking situations when a course grade or college admission is on the line. Others talk about “panicking” when someone isn’t able to think clearly enough to follow well-practiced procedures to exit a building in a fire. But what do these terms really mean?
Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2000 New Yorker essay “The Art of Failure,” talks about choking and panicking. The former, Gladwell suggests, occurs when people lose their instinct and think too much about what they are doing. Panicking occurs when people rely on instincts they should avoid. I am here to tell you that from a scientific point of view these are both instances of choking.
Choking can occur when people think too much about activities that are usually automatic. This is called “paralysis by analysis.” By contrast, people also choke when they are not devoting enough attention to what they are doing and rely on simple or incorrect routines. In Choke you will learn about what influences poor performance under pressure in myriad situations so that you can prevent failure in your own endeavors.
But first, what is choking exactly? Choking under pressure is poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of a situation. Choking is not simply poor performance, however. Choking is suboptimal performance. It’s when you—or an individual athlete, actor, musician, or student—perform worse than expected given what you are capable of doing, and worse than what you have done in the past. This less-than-optimal performance doesn’t merely reflect a random fluctuation in skill level—we all have performance ups and downs. This choke occurs in response to a highly stressful situation.
A business executive recently shared a story with me about an incident at his company that occurred shortly after the big anthrax scares of 2001. Letters containing anthrax spores had been mailed to news media and political figures, resulting in several injuries and even five deaths. First tested as a biological warfare agent in the 1930s, anthrax spores are easily spread, so companies developed procedures after the mailings for employees to follow in order to contain contamination if it were to occur. This executive’s company had developed a step-by-step guide for employees who suspected they had been exposed and had even conducted several company-wide practice drills to go over procedures in the event of an anthrax contamination. Nonetheless, when one day white powder came spilling out of a package that a woman in his division had opened, instead of calmly following procedure, which first and foremost meant staying put, she immediately panicked and ran out of the office, making contact with several employees along the way.
Fortunately, the incident turned out be a hoax. What the executive wanted to know was whether this woman’s panic was similar to an athlete faltering at the Olympics or his son freezing at the chalkboard in school. If so, then perhaps he could learn something from these activities about how to prevent panic in his own employees. These are all instances of choking under pressure. Knowing how particular chokes are similar (and different) is the key to treating them.
In Choke we will explore how performance in the classroom is tied to performance on the basketball court or orchestra pit and whether success in one arena carries implications for skill execution in another. We will ask why the mere mention of differences between the sexes in math ability disrupts the quantitative exam performance of a female test taker and we will delve into other activities where similar phenomena occur. Why are those high-powered students—with the most knowledge and skill—most likely to choke under the pressure of a big exam? Do these same folks also choke in sports? Can calling a “time-out” immediately before the game-winning field goal in football reduce a kicker’s success or “ice” him? Why does icing work and can a politician be iced before giving an important speech? Choke tells the stories of the science behind these human performances and others as it explains what the secrets of the brain can teach us about our own success and failure at work and at play.
© 2010 sian Beilock