Mind & Body

This Trick Will Keep You From Choking Under Pressure

Choking happens to the best of us. Great basketball players miss game-winning free throws; executives get the hiccups during big presentations; at least one renowned singer has performed the Star Spangled Banner and sounded like a crying turkey. It all seems so preventable, though — the ability is there, even if the execution isn't. Can choking be cured?

Related Video: The Negative Side of Positive Thinking

What Makes Us Choke?

First, we need to understand what choking is. For one, it's a well-documented part of being human, according to a team of California Institute of Technology researchers, who have studied the phenomenon for years. We perform better the more we have to gain, but only up to a point. When we have too much to gain, we tend to mess up, even if we're doing something we do every day. In other words, we "choke."

As anyone who's heard Eminem's 2002 hit "Lose Yourself" knows, there are several physical symptoms of choking: weak knees, sweaty palms, vomiting. Really, though, choking is secondarily physical — mostly, it's a mental affliction. The potential reward (or loss of reward) distracts you from the task at hand, and your performance level drops. Choking shows up on brain scans as heightened activity in the ventral striatum, the part of your brain where you analyze risk and reward.

Previous research suggests it has a lot to do with a person's perspective. In a 2012 study from those same CIT researchers, participants were more likely to choke on a hand-eye coordination challenge if they were highly loss averse — in other words, if they disliked losing money more than they enjoyed winning it. Their 2014 study found that the structure of a reward system played a major role, too, though. People were more likely to choke on the challenge if they were trying to win a large sum of money than if they were trying to avoid losing a large sum of money. (This held true even for people who were highly loss averse.)

Rewards systems are harder to shift than your own thinking, though. So researchers wondered — could people think differently about what was at stake, even in a high-pressure situation, to avoid choking?

Pressure, Reimagined

In a recent study, they explored exactly this. They used the same hand-eye coordination challenge they'd used in previous research — one designed to be totally foreign to study participants so that they would all be beginners. After a practice period, the researchers began offering the participants rewards ranging from $0 to $100 for successful performance on the challenge.

As the 36 participants tried for cash prizes, they were sometimes asked to think of the reality of the situation: They were trying to win money. Other times, researchers asked them to reimagine the situation, or use a "cognitive reappraisal strategy." The reward structure didn't change, but they were directed to "[i]magine the [reward] amount, in cash, sitting in your pocket as you complete the round." If they succeeded, they could keep the money they already had.

Participants choked significantly less when they used the "reappraisal" trick than when they thought of themselves as striving for a prize — regardless of how loss-averse they were. As predicted by past studies, those who thought about the reality of the game performed worse the higher the prize went. MRI scans also revealed that reappraisal reduced activity in the risk-and-reward-centric ventral striatum.

It's not a perfect fix; reappraisal didn't prevent all choking. Still, for an easy, purely mental shift, it was a surprisingly effective antidote. So the next time you're trying for a major reward — whether it's the World Series or a lifetime supply of chicken nuggets — just imagine it's already yours. You're not trying to prove you deserve something new; you're confirming you deserve what you have in the first place.

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One of the first researchers to uncover this idea was behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. You can read more about the ways your brain short-circuits in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice February 19, 2019

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