Thursday, April 15, 2010

How to Perform without Choking Under Pressure

How to Avoid Choking Under Pressure

Writer Jonah Lehrer has spent a lot of time examining what makes people choke in high-pressure situations; as a followup to his previous work, Lehrer offers a few proven tips for avoiding self-sabotage when the heat is on.

In 2008, Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock, psychologists at the University of Western Australia, performed a study of 20 experienced golfers with handicaps ranging from zero to 12. The scientists had the golfers play under three separate conditions. In the first, they were told to fixate on specific components of their swing, such as "hips" or "straight wrist". The second condition consisted of the golfers focusing on irrelevant words, such as "blue" or "white". In the third, the golfers were told to focus on general aspects of their intended movement, or what the psychologists refer to as a "holistic cue word". For instance, rather than contemplating the precise position of their wrist, they contemplated descriptive adjectives such as "smooth" or "balanced". To make the experiment a bit more realistic, and to induce some anxiety, the scientists awarded a modest cash prize to the best golfer.

The Outcome: the first was that anxiety only interfered with performance when it was coupled with self-consciousness. Nervous golfers who thought about the details of their swing, such as how to position their hips, hit consistently worse shots. That makes sense, since one of the main causes of choking is "thinking too much," that is "over thinking is one of the main causes of choking" as we start analyzing actions (like a golf swing) that are best performed on autopilot.

I've always mocked those silly motivational posters, which feature lofty adjectives like "courage" and "strength" and some inspiring photograph of a soaring eagle or snow capped mountain. (It didn't help that my freshman roommate filled our dorm room with these posters.) But this research suggests that the pictures might actually work, at least to the extent they allow us to fixate on the cliche in capital letters. Thinking about "determination" won't make us more determined, but it just might keep us from choking.

In an another research,It turns out that that inner monologue of anxieties causing us to choke - this includes the golfer fretting about his swing and the student worrying about her algebra abilities - depends largely on the left prefrontal cortex. This makes sense, as the left prefrontal cortex has long been associated with working memory tasks that consist of verbal information. (Think, for instance, of a sample word problem on a math test.) Since our worries take the form of words, it makes perfect sense that they'd get stuck in the left PFC.

Don't Choke
[The Frontal Cortex]