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:: By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM'04

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Choking hazards

Psychology professor Sian Beilock raises the pressure on athletes and scholars to uncover what’s behind the performance nosedives of highly skilled people.

photo:  Sian Beilock uses specially designed clubs to measure golfers’ response to stress.
Sian Beilock uses specially designed clubs to measure golfers’ response to stress.

A student memorizes every detail for the final and freezes as soon as she opens the blue book. A star forward hits 50 consecutive free throws in practice but flubs every last one during the championship. Is choking under pressure self-sabotage, mockery of the gods, or just plain bad luck? According to assistant professor of psychology Sian Beilock, it may be the menace of pressure itself.

“Often our abilities,” explains Beilock, “are characterized by these very small snippets of performance that take place in environments that may not represent our true skill set.” As anyone who’s choked knows, pressure situations can fundamentally alter the way individuals think about and exercise their skills. To understand how, Beilock—first as a graduate student at Michigan State University, then as assistant professor at Miami University of Ohio, and now at Chicago—transformed several labs into well-calibrated pressure cookers. Using a combination of common stressors—a “brute-force method” that includes potential monetary compensation, third-party observation, and peer pressure—she has watched dozens of individuals take a performance nosedive. Along the way, she has discovered that golfers and mathematicians choke for different reasons, high performers are the most common victims, and real-life practice is the best prevention.

Her own experience as a lacrosse player at the University of California, San Diego, fueled Beilock’s first questions about performance. To answer them, she retired her lacrosse stick and hit the putting green. Like riding a bike, Beilock says, putting becomes largely automatic once mastered, making it a “nice test bed” to gauge pressure’s impact on golfers. When skilled players—undergraduate subjects with two or more years of varsity golf experience or a PGA handicap lower than eight—were asked to sink the ball while simultaneously identifying a specific word from a tape recording, putting ability came through unscathed, despite extra demands on concentration. Force these same experts, however, to think about their skill in a way they normally don’t, such as focusing on club-swing distance or elbow position, and performance suffers. The extra attention, explains Beilock, is a common side effect of pressure situations that disrupts the flow of a well-honed activity, throwing off even the most talented individuals.

Other skills work in the opposite way. While a math whiz might perform calculations more quickly than a less-qualified classmate, successful execution still demands the expert’s dedicated focus. In contrast to a sensorimotor task like putting, many cognitive tasks call upon reserves of “working memory.” It’s the same type of short-term brain activity used to remember a number from the Yellow Pages long enough to make the call, and retention varies from person to person. In a low-stress situation—Beilock’s subjects were told they were doing practice questions—individuals who showed greater working-memory capacity did better on a challenging math task than lower-working-memory subjects. When pressure kicked in, however, these high-performers suffered the sharpest performance plunge. The discrepancy, Beilock says, suggests that individuals with high working memory may rely on complicated problem-solving techniques that naturally require more working-memory capacity than available under pressure. When anxiety begins to crowd that mental space, skilled individuals may not have enough room left over to solve the equation as quickly or successfully as usual.

Such findings drive the debate over the predictive validity of real-world exams like the SAT. After all, if pressure takes the greatest toll on those otherwise most likely to succeed, do such tests end up measuring the skill itself or the ability to perform under pressure? Granted, there are times—the MCAT for pre-meds comes to mind—when picking out those who do well under stress may be a useful indicator. Still, explains Beilock, who is studying these issues as part of a three-year U.S. Department of Education grant, it is important to remember that such tests are “just one snippet of performance that may not be reflective of all ability.”

A related choking hazard is something called “stereotype threat,” in which an individual’s awareness of negative stereotypes linked to his or her social identity—gender, race, age—undermines performance. For example, female subjects told right before a math test that women generally aren’t as good as men at math score lower than women not explicitly given this information. Like other forms of choking, stereotype threat overwhelmingly afflicts high performers. “Sometimes,” says Beilock, who won a National Science Foundation grant to study the concept, “having skill in an area or feeling an area is important may actually be a curse.”

The good news, she advises, is that those who prepare by mimicking real-life situations can bypass pressure’s pitfalls. Whether timed practice tests or full-length football scrimmages, such simulations reduce the novelty of stressful events and curtail choking. Beilock herself helps undergraduates by minimizing high-stakes testing in her classes, offering multiple quizzes, papers, and other ways of demonstrating subject mastery.

From her office in Green, Beilock continues to uncover evidence for choking’s causes. This spring she’ll delve into facial expression and other physiological measures. Initial data suggests that a choker’s predicament shows up on his mug as well as in performance. She’ll also study neural correlates and factors like heart rate. Always seeking connections between different skill types, Beilock plans to assess performance-related thought patterns of novice and expert hockey players, possibly using fMRI studies.

So has Beilock ever choked? “There have been moments where I performed more poorly than I would have liked,” she confesses, politely declining to provide a play-by-play.