Stage Fright

The pressure. The expectations. The anxiety. If there’s one thing that connects the athletes gathering for the Olympic games with the rest of us, it’s the stress that can come from performing in front of others. In this week’s episode, we talk with cognitive scientist Sian Beilock about why so many of us crumble under pressure –– and what we can do about it.

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Additional Resources

Book:

Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to, Sian Beilock, PH.D.  Atria Paperback/Simon and Schuster 2010

Research Studies:

Why Do Athletes Choke under Pressure? Sian L. Beilock and Rob Gray, Chapter 19 of Handbook of Sport Psychology 2007

A Closer Look at Who “Chokes under Pressure”  Jason Sattizahn, Jason Moser, Sian Beilock, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 2016

Beyond the playing field: sport psychology meets embodied cognition, Sian L. Beilock, International Review of Sport and Exercise Physiology, 2008

Performance during competition and competition outcome in relation to testosterone and cortisol among women, Andrea Henry, Jason Sattizahn, Greg J. Norman, Sian L. Beilock, Dario Maestripieri, Hormones and Behavior Volume 92, June 2017

When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math, Ian M. Lyons, Sian L Beilock, PLOS ONE, 2012

The role of anxiety and motivation in students’ math and science achievement, Christopher S Rozek, Susan C. Levin, Sian L. Beilock, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development iLibrary, 2019

Reducing socioeconomic disparities in the STEM pipeline through student emotion regulation, Christopher Rozek, Gerardo Ramirez, Rachel D. Fine, and Sian L. Beillock, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  2019

Reading Anxiety: An Early Affective Impediment to Children’s Success in Reading among Children, Gerardo Ramirez, Laura Fries, Elizabeth Gunderson, Marjorie W Schaeffer, Erin A. Maloney, Sian L. Beilock & Susan C. Levine, Journal of Cognition and Development, 2019

Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control, C. Liston, B.S. McEwen, and B. J. Casey, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009

When paying attention becomes counterproductive: Impact of divided versus skill-focused attention on nov- ice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills,” S. L. Beilock, T. H. Carr, C. MacMahon, and J. L. Starkes, Journal of Experimental Psychology: 2002

Videos: 

John Roberts delivers the oath of office to President Barack Obama January 2009https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1Yff-_9MZs

Keith Clark plays taps at President JF Kennedy’s funeral:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2h3z3Jqqo0

Jean van de Velde  at the 18 hole during the British Open l999: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QV8Qj91T3o0&t=1s

Eagles perform Take it Easy live with Jackson Browne, l974https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sieg538458s

Cate Campbell on setting a new world record in 100m freestyle, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iC2flkwXbk

Cate Cambpell 2019 interview on her attitude towards competition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCexcB33hdQ

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the women's 100-meter freestyle race had a favorite: Australia's Cate Campbell. The swimmer had won two bronze medals at the 2008 Olympics, and a gold medal at the 2012 games. One month before Rio, she broke the world record in the 100-meter freestyle. After that race, she confessed she didn't really know how she did it.

Cate Campbell: I think the best swims you don't remember, so I don't remember a whole lot of it. I just remember getting on the block and being like, "Just get a good start. Once you got a good start, it's all downhill from there." So I think that that's pretty much what I did.

Shankar Vedantam: And then came Rio. At first, it looked like she was going to win.

Sports announcer: Cate's start was a little bit slower than everybody else, 0.8 of a second was the reaction time, but once she hit the water, look at the world record line on her waist...

Shankar Vedantam: Cate had a commanding lead, but after the 50-meter turn, something happened. Her lead began to evaporate. In the final sprint, other swimmers edged past her. She ended up in sixth place. Later she said, "The world got to witness possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history." It turned out Cate thought she had flinched before the starting gun, a false start. As she hit the water, she was certain she was going to be disqualified. Her race plan went out the window. She panicked. She swam the first 50-meters too fast and then ran out of gas on the homestretch. As the world prepares to watch the planet's finest athletes compete in the Tokyo Olympics, versions of Cate's story are likely to be played out over and over again in different sports. The pressure, the nerves, they can get to the very best of the best.

Sian Beilock: It's a little counterintuitive, right? You want to perform at your best. You know how to do it and you have shown that so many times before. And then all of a sudden, you just can't pull it off.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, how pressure hijacks our bodies and our brains and how to keep it from derailing us.

Shankar Vedantam: All of us have been there, taking the LSAT, trying out for the football team, reciting our wedding vows. We all know what it's like to feel hundreds of eyes on us, the pressure, the expectations, the anxiety. At Barnard College in New York, psychologist Sian Beilock has spent decades studying why many of us crumble under pressure and what we can do about it. Sian Beilock, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Sian Beilock: Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Sian, you've accomplished a great deal in your life. Besides a stellar career as a psychologist, you've also been a prominent administrator. You're currently the president of Barnard College in New York City. But I'd like to take you back to a more humbling moment in your life, if I might. You were in high school and you're a soccer goalie on the California State team and you were playing a game, things were going really well until you noticed someone standing right behind you. What happened next?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I noticed that the national coach, the person that starts selecting for the Olympic team and playing at that national world stage was standing right behind me. And all of a sudden, I remember that my whole mentality changed. I became hyper aware of everything I was doing and that someone was watching me. I almost was watching myself through his eyes. And I ended up really bobbling the next ball that came to me and then eventually I let in an easy shot that I should have been able to block in my sleep. It was almost as if it was in slow motion and I just missed, I dove over the ball rather than at the ball. It was almost like getting the ball shot through your legs when you're playing on the field. And the coach walked away. I watched him walk away and I just thought that's it. My soccer career is never going to be the same. And I just couldn't understand it. This is something I did all the time. I was a really great player. I practiced so much. Why did this change now when he was there? I was confused and mad and sad.

Shankar Vedantam: So we're going to explore in depth what happens inside the brain when we choke and what we can do about it, but I want to begin by clearly laying out the range of ways we can crumble under stress, what sports fans and researchers called choking under pressure. You once experienced this in the academic domain during a chemistry test you took in your freshman year of college. Can you tell me what happened, Sian?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I choked a lot. I never tested as well as I did in practice and this certainly happened when I got to college. I went to the University of California at San Diego. I was focused on getting a bachelor's of science majoring in a STEM field. And when I went in to take Intro to Chemistry, which is a very hard class, at least it is for most people and the professor looked around at the 600-person class and said, "A lot of you aren't going to pass this class." I thought, "Oh, my God, I'm in that back for sure. There's no way." So I paid attention in class. I thought I had studied really diligently for the first test. I took the first test. I walked out and I remember walking behind a group of students and they were talking about the answers. And I remember thinking, "Gosh, my answers weren't like their answers." So that was my first cue.

Shankar Vedantam: Always a bad sign.

Sian Beilock: It was a bad sign. So then he posted ... It wasn't like now where you probably get your scores all online, but he posted it on one of those yellow legal pieces of paper outside the front door, I think maybe even written in hand. And there were at this point maybe 400 kids in the class. And I got the worst grade out of anyone in the class. It's really embarrassing. There were a lot of people tied with me, but there was no one below. And I remember calling my mom and walking back and saying, "I can't do college. I'm not good enough."

Shankar Vedantam: Both the domains in which we've talked about, playing a high-stress soccer game and doing a chemistry test, you could argue that the tasks involved are actually fairly complex and complicated, but sometimes we can choke even when it comes to doing something simple if the stakes are high enough. In 2009, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was swearing in President-elect Barack Obama. Now both men had spent years in the public eye dealing with difficult and stressful situations. The exact words of the oath of office were not a surprise, they were familiar to both men, but here's what happened during the swearing in ceremony.

John Roberts: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

Barack Obama: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

John Roberts: That I will execute the Office of President to the United States faithfully.

Barack Obama: That I will execute-

John Roberts: Faithfully the Office of President of the United States faithfully.

Barack Obama: The Office of President of the United States faithfully.

John Roberts: And will to the best of my ability.

Shankar Vedantam: Can you talk a moment, Sian, about how sometimes the simplest tasks can trip us up when we're under pressure?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I think this is why choking is so interesting because it can happen in any sort of situation where we feel pressure to perform well, something oftentimes that is so well learned that you'd be surprised that anything would go wrong. The swearing in is a great example of that where maybe the Chief Justice just started paying a little bit too much attention to what he was saying. Just the act of doing that can be really disruptive. One that I like to talk about a lot is parallel parking, which I'm very good at when no one is in the car with me, but when someone is watching, I choke. It's really embarrassing. No one believes me, but I'm a really good parallel parker until I'm under stress.

Shankar Vedantam: It's like one of those philosophical conundrums, right? "How do we know you're a good parallel parker if you're never a good parallel parker when we can see you?"

Sian Beilock: Exactly, it's all about the tree in the forest or even one I think that's really relevant right now as we come back into social situations, it's just like interacting with other people. How many times at a party have you tried to introduce yourself and you choke getting the words out or someone tells you their name and you have no idea, even as they're saying it what it is? We choke in the simplest situations.

Shankar Vedantam: Right. And I want to bring up another example because it's along the lines of what you were just talking about. There are times when we are doing things that we have done hundreds of times before or thousands of times before and we still can trip up. I'm thinking of US Army bugler Keith Clark who performed Taps at President John F. Kennedy's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in November 1963. He'd obviously played it many times before, but something happened when he got to the sixth note.

Sound of Trumpet with a stumble on the 6th note:

Shankar Vedantam: Now, people later said the mistake sounded like the bugle was weeping with Keith Clark himself, never got to him making this mistake. I suspect that he felt a lot like you felt as you saw the national team coach walking away from that field.

Sian Beilock: It can be just so devastating to do something that you know how to do and do it not at your level of ability when all eyes are on you.

Shankar Vedantam: And this is what makes it so mysterious, isn't it? Because when we are going through one of these things, you feel like telling everyone, "I really can do it. Believe me, I know how to do this."

Sian Beilock: Yeah, it's a little counterintuitive, right? You want to perform at your best and you can't, right? It's one thing if you don't care, but choking occurs when you feel the most pressure, you feel everyone's eyes on you, you want to put your best foot forward, you know how to do it and you have shown that so many times before. And then all of a sudden, you just can't pull it off.

Shankar Vedantam: There are endless examples of professional tennis players and golfers flubbing simple shots when the pressure is on. Sian's soccer stories speak to that or take free throws in basketball. So many close games are decided in the final minutes by a player sinking or missing free throws.

Sian Beilock: I think free throw shooting is such an interesting aspect of all of my research. And it's like I think the epitome of a choke situation. Objectively, shooting a free throw is not that hard of a task compared to what basketball players do. It's the same spot. No one is guarding them. They know how to do it, but what really changes is the psychological element of it.

Shankar Vedantam: But sports also shows us another domain of choking where the choke isn't over in just a moment where you let in a goal, but the choke builds on itself. It becomes bigger and bigger. In your book, "Choke," you tell the story of the French golfer, John Van De Velde at the British Open in 1999. What happened to him, Sian?

Sian Beilock: He got to that 18th hole. He was just ready to win.

Golf Announcer: He's three shots ahead, so he can afford to take a six and still with a double bogey and still finish at five over.

Sian Beilock: But you could see, when he got to the 18th hole, everything looked a little different. He sat over the ball before he took his first drive and it did not go well.

Shankar Vedantam: His first shot on the 18th hole landed on the fairway of the 17th hole.

Sian Beilock: The second off the grandstand, the third into the water.

Sian Beilock: And you can see the picture that was across newspapers the next day, he took off his socks and shoes and waded into the water and was actually going to try and hit the ball out of the water. Then he thankfully decided not to do that. Took the penalty, ended up in a tiebreaker round and lost. But he just crumbled. Not only did his shot start going awry, but you felt like it was building on each other. You had the sense that it was not going in a good direction and it's just heartbreaking.

Golf Announcer: His golfing brain stopped about 10 minutes ago, I think.

Shankar Vedantam: I don't know if you feel the same way, but whenever I see something like this on television or I hear something, I feel terrible. I feel like, "Oh, my God. I just want this to end. Please fix the problem." Do you feel that way? That in some ways you're with them in this moment of excruciating agony?

Sian Beilock: I'd feel it with them right there. In a way though, I've learned not only to feel the excruciating pain, but I look at it as a scientist, I'm really interested in what's going to happen next. And I think that's actually one of the reasons we love watching sports, right? We know that people come into professional games or amateur games with high skill levels, but you never quite know what's going to happen when the stakes are highest. If you just knew how people were going to play based on their past records, why would you watch, right? But what's so interesting is that at those highest levels, there's a mental aspect that you just don't know how it's going to play out, "Who's going to choke? Who's going to thrive? Can someone recover?" and it's just so fascinating from a human perspective.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about a slightly different element of choking. Sometimes when we choke, it can produce breakdowns in communication, for example, in medicine or surgery or when a team is working on something complex. Can you talk about this, that sometimes choking is not just about what happens to you, but what happens to you as a member of a team in terms of your interactions with other people on the team?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I think this is a really interesting aspect of choking, right? Choking can be very individual, but we often don't work as individuals. Often, we're working as teams. And one thing that my research and others have shown is that one of the key places that there are performance breakdowns when they're stressful situations, time demands or there's life or death situations is that people stop communicating as well as they could. And this is really interesting because doctors, for example, they don't communicate all the information to another doctor as they hand off a patient and then there's an issue or pilots leave something out or even as you're working as a team on a group project, you fail to communicate in a way that's clear. And what I find so interesting about these situations is that we're often very confident that we've communicated what we need to communicate because we know what it is in our head, but our ability to accurately gauge whether someone else understood it is what gets diminished.

Shankar Vedantam: We often think that people who fail at important tasks are people who don't care or people who are simply unprepared for the big moment. When we come back, how choking is often not the product of carelessness and inexperience, but the consequence of expertise and caring too much. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Even the most experienced and skilled musicians, athletes and doctors can sometimes lose it. They crumble unexpectedly and find themselves bewildered at what happened. They know how to do something really well. So why did their skills abandon them when it mattered most? Sian Beilock has studied the psychology of choking. She and other researchers have discovered that there is a complex psychology behind this all too common experience. In her book, she explores the role of what cognitive scientists call working memory in the phenomenon of choking.

Sian Beilock: I think that our working memory is like our cognitive horsepower, right? It allows us to get lots of things done, juggle numbers in our head, plan for the future, make decisions based on a lot of different information. And the thing that is so important to remember about working memory is that it's limited. We only have so much of it, which is why, for example, it's not a good idea to drive and talk on the cellphone because then part of your working memory is devoted to reacting to what's happening on the road and another part of it is devoted to the cell phone conversation and that's not great.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologists have come up with a number of ways to identify and test working memory. Can you tell me how they do this, Sian?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, well, it's really getting you to work as you're thinking about something. So maybe I'll read you a list of digits and you have to repeat them back to me, just as I read them, so that's how much you can hold. But what if I read you a list of digits and then you had to repeat them back in the reverse order?

Shankar Vedantam: Wow.

Sian Beilock: That's a lot harder, right? Because you have to hold all the digits, then you have to start counting backwards while still not getting rid of any of what you've held and that's really the working part of working memory.

Shankar Vedantam: Because working memory is finite, your brain has to quickly decide how to deploy it. In a basketball game, your brain has to take in where your teammates are located, what your opponents are doing. It has to figure out how to respond to a new opportunity that suddenly develops. One reason skilled players are better than novices is because they have seen similar situations on the court before. So they don't expend a lot of working memory to process what is happening. They can focus their working memory on the elements of the situation that are truly novel.

Sian Beilock: I think that's what really separates those extraordinary performers from us regular ones. A concert pianist is not thinking about what their fingers are doing, and because they don't have to think about that, they can then interpret the melody and think about how the tone is in particular situations and have an impact with a piece that you or I who is having to think about our fingers would not be able to.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, Sian, if we can talk a moment about the paradox of working memory because, of course, the picture that you're laying out suggests that having working memory is very effective that, it helps us in all kinds of different domains. And of course, on the face of it, that is true, but the answer is also more complicated. Can you explain how?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, so here's really the kicker, it's really important to be able to focus, but you have to be focusing on the right things. And what often happens is that when we're performing skills or activities where it's actually we've learned them to perfection or learn them on autopilot, it's better not to focus on all the details. So sometimes our working memory can actually get in the way. And let me just give you an example. Most of us who are fortunate enough could shuffle down the stairs really easily and not give it a second thought. We've learned walking motions and locomotion in a way that we just don't think about what we're doing, but if I asked you to pay attention to your knee and tell me what your knee is doing as you're shuffling down the stairs, there's a good chance you're going to fall down the stairs because now I'm asking you to bring into conscious attention something that normally runs outside it. And you might in doing so just take a little longer and thinking how your knee is going to be placed and that's when you fall.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if this is what might explain why in many sports, the same thing that helps you in one domain of the game can actually hurt you in another domain of the game. Because there actually are times when you should be focusing and should be concentrating and should be conscious and there are other times when in fact being conscious and deliberate can hurt you.

Sian Beilock: I think that's right and what I would even say is that there are certain things that you need to be conscious and focusing on and certain things that you don't, even within the same activity. So you'd want your basketball player certainly to be using working memory to read the court, think about the next play going on, how they're going to move after that play, but you certainly wouldn't want the player at that point to be thinking about how they're angling their wrist as they go to take the shot because that's something they do so fluently, it's actually going to slow them down to have to think about it consciously to use their working memory.

Shankar Vedantam: You write in the book that the key is to have brain power at your disposal, but be able to turn it off when that brain power is a problem. And I thought that is such an interesting idea that, on the one hand, you want to have the ability, you want to have the working memory, but you also want to, in some ways, have it be like a faucet where you can turn it off and go back to autopilot.

Sian Beilock: I think that's right and I think it gets back to this idea that more attention, concentrating more is not always helpful. And I always cringe when I hear coaches yelling at kids from the sideline, "Concentrate. Concentrate." It may be true for the kid on the soccer field who's watching the plane fly above them, but oftentimes, in that pressure situation, you don't want to encourage the players to pay too much attention to things that they shouldn't.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways, we can go back to your high school soccer game here. When you were thinking about what the coach was thinking of you, in some ways and you started to analyze your own behavior and analyze your own performance, you were watching yourself from outside yourself, this is what you call "paralysis by analysis."

Sian Beilock: It really is and I think when I did it at the time, I had this feeling of everything going in slow motion. I was paying attention in a way I don't normally do. And it was until many years later when I started researching this where I realized this is actually a common phenomenon. In these high stakes situations, we care so much about what we're doing that we try and control it in order to ensure an optimal performance. And unfortunately, that control can backfire and actually disrupt our ability to play fluently, on autopilot, to do the thing we've practiced so hard to do.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to talk about some recent studies that you and others have conducted where you can actually induce choking or something that looks like choking in people. You've conducted studies where you asked college soccer players, for example, to dribble a ball around cones while noticing which side of their feet they are using to control the ball. Tell me about the study and what you found.

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I've done a lot of studies designed to try and make people perform worse, but in this situation, we had soccer players who were either new to soccer, novices, or just very inexperienced, dribble around cones and we also had college level players or really expert players do the same thing. And we told them both to pay attention to the side of the foot that just touched the ball. And what we found is that for the experts, doing that actually slowed down their ability to dribble through the cones accurately, but for the novices, if anything, it helped a little bit. And it goes back to this idea that for the most part when we're just learning a skill, we do have to pay attention to it a lot, but once we know it really well and it's on autopilot, if you pay too much attention to aspects of it that you wouldn't normally focus on, there's no soccer player in college soccer running down the field thinking about, "Left, right, left, right," then you actually disrupt them.

Shankar Vedantam: So this is the great paradox of working memory. It plays an essential role as we're learning a new skill. Being deliberate and conscious when you're a beginner is an excellent way to master something. But as you get better and better, it becomes more and more automatic. Instead of working memory, you now need to rely on something called "procedural memory." All the things you know how to do really well are saved in your brain in procedural memory. If you take a skill that has been encoded in procedural memory and start to think about it deliberately using working memory, you go back to thinking like a beginner. This is when you choke.

Sian Beilock: I think one important take home is that we have different kinds of memory or we talk about remembering in different ways. And procedural memory characterizes more of our memory for different procedures, right? And so we don't think about every step as we get really good at it, we can do the whole procedure together, we just get at the end. Like the route you take to go to work every day, when we did at one point commute to work, you don't think about every turn you make. All of a sudden, you end up at work and you're there. And that's a procedure you have memorized to do something. And it's the same in athletics as well as you get much better and better at doing a particular task. The memory, we talked about it as, this procedural memory, as you remember the procedures to do it and you can start at the beginning and end at the end. You don't have to think about the steps in between.

Shankar Vedantam: Researchers have also found that when we are under pressure, other cognitive skills get disrupted. In one study, scientists scan the brains of Cornell Medical students experiencing the stress of preparing for their board exams. The students underperformed in a simple test of cognitive ability. The researchers tracked what was happening inside their brains.

Sian Beilock: And what they found is that different areas of their brain were not communicating as well with each other as they should. It was almost as if being under that constant stress had disrupted the fluent flow of information neurally. And it led these students, the ones who are getting ready for the boards, to be less creative, less able to think outside the box, less able to solve interesting problems.

Shankar Vedantam: So much of what we're talking about, Sian, comes down to the role that anxiety is playing in our lives. You once conducted a study into math anxiety and looked at the changes happening in people's brains as they were about to embark on a math test.

Sian Beilock: Yeah, so we've done a lot of work lately looking at math anxiety because, unfortunately, math anxiety is really prevalent. And we've been really interested in where math anxiety comes from and what's actually happening when someone who's math anxious has to do math. And our argument has been that it's not just that people who are anxious about math are bad at it, that something about the anxiety itself changes how their brain functions. And so we looked at that by inviting people who are really worried about math and people who weren't to our lab to have their brain scanned using an MRI. And what was so interesting about this study about using neuroscience techniques here is that we could really separate out what was happening in the brain about being anxious from actually what was going on in the brain when they were doing the math. And you can actually get a picture of which areas of the brain are changing when someone just knows they're about to do math versus when they're actually doing it. And so what we did is we told them they would get a cue like maybe a yellow square and they knew the math was about to come or they'd get another cue or red square and they knew they were going to do a reading test. And what we found, which was really interesting was when the people who were really worried about math just knew the math was coming, areas of the brain involved in our neural pain matrix, the same areas of the brain that are involved when we pick our finger with a needle or stub our toe were activated when they just knew the math was coming. They weren't doing any math. They just knew it was coming. But even more interesting was that when these areas of the brain were active, when they just knew the math was coming, when they actually had to do the math, they did worse.

Shankar Vedantam: It's almost as if the pain or the anticipation of pain is crowding out their ability to actually focus on the problem. So at some point, now they're not actually looking at the math problem anymore because their brain is so filled with the pain or the fear of the impending pain.

Sian Beilock: And that's really been our argument that people who are anxious about math are not anxious because they're bad at it. They're bad at math because they're anxious about it. And that's a very, very different story about how to help people get better at it.

Shankar Vedantam: These feelings of anxiety often come from a desire to do well. The solution to choking cannot be to stop caring. When we come back, techniques we can all learn to keep caring but stop choking. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Sian Beilock has found that in high stakes settings, many of us start to focus on the wrong things. Instead of simply executing what we know how to do, we second guess ourselves and behave in highly scripted and stilted ways. Unsurprisingly, we make mistakes. And when we do mess up, our mistakes can then make us even more anxious. To choke might be human, but there are some people who perform remarkably well under pressure. When the stakes are highest, they don't crumble. They actually seem to thrive. Sia, is performing well under pressure a matter of temperament or a skill that we can all learn?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, well, I really fall strongly on the “these are skills that can be learned” side. Of course, there are many individual differences across people and one is, you know, maybe how susceptible they are to what other people think about them or how much they care about a particular domain or area. But I don't think there's very much evidence at all that people are chokers or thrivers. And I think anyone can learn to perform better at what makes them most nervous when the pressure is on.

Shankar Vedantam: We talked about that chemistry test in college that you did really badly at. You came in last in a class of 400. After the test was over, you had a conversation with your mom where you expressed your concerns about whether you weren't the right fit for college and she suggested a number of things to you that turned out to actually be quite relevant in actually turning you from a choker to a thriver. What was that conversation like and what did she tell you, Sian?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, so I remember calling her as I was walking back to my dorm after getting the score. And I was just devastated. And I thought I'd done everything right, but she asked just the right questions. She said, "Did you study?" I said, "Of course, I studied." She said, "Did you do the practice problems in the book?" I said, "No, I just read over the chapters." Then she said, "Did you have a study group? Did you see if you knew things just like other people knew them?" I said, "No, I just did it all by myself." She said, "Did you go to office hours?" "No, no, I just read the book like I did in high school," and I did really well in high school. She said, "Well, maybe you just didn't study in the right way." And I took her advice to heart. I realized that I had to do something that I didn't like to do, which were the practice problems, which were not fun. And I found a study group which was helpful to understand what I knew and what I didn't. But when I really figured out how to do this in the right way was that I would go to the study sessions having already studied on my own and we'd quiz each other, trying to get to the answers as quickly as possible. And it was like we were mimicking taking the test in that group. And that's when I really mastered the problems. And it turns out that that's a really great technique to do well under pressure is to practice doing well under pressure. And when we took the second test, I got the highest grade in the class.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow, I understand you helped your own children internalize the same lesson that in other words you can actually try and mimic pressure situations before you're actually under pressure in order to help you deal with the situation when it actually arises.

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I do this a lot with my 10-year-old in terms of, if she has to give a presentation in class, I make her give it to me. Sometimes I make funny comments or I distract her a little bit. I get her used to what it's going to be like in class and nothing's more pressure filled than having your mom embarrass and bother you. So she's ready for it when she gets in front of the group.

Shankar Vedantam: So in some ways, it seems to me that this is in line with the ideas around how to combat you anxiety in general, which is the exposure to the anxiety-inducing trigger is often the best way to reduce our responses to anxiety. How much of this work is connected to the idea of exposure therapy?

Sian Beilock: I think there's a common theme that runs right through it. And the idea is that you have to close this gap between training and competition. That's the sports analogy. And you can take that to any skill that you do, any domain. You want to get used to what it's going to be like in the real situation. And so that means for example if your child is playing high-level tennis, the first time to show up to watch them is not at their big match. They need to get used to you watching them if you're going to show up, at practice, right? It means that if you're going to take an SAT or an ACT, you've got to practice taking SATs and ACTs. It means if you're going to speak in public, you've got to practice speaking with other people watching you. You have to get used to what it feels like and get used to reminding yourself that those physiological responses are not a bad thing.

Shankar Vedantam: You talked about how there are ways to also reframe those physiological responses. In other words, if you're experiencing sweaty palms or palpitating heart, the normal way to interpret those signals is to tell yourself, "Oh, my God, I am overmatched for the situation that I'm in," but there's a different way to also think about the very same symptoms.

Sian Beilock: Yeah, it's interesting to think about that we'd have the same symptoms, whether we were worried or excited, right? And that's really very liberating because then it's about reinterpreting them. And myself and other colleagues have done a lot of work showing that when you can get people to reinterpret those symptoms as a sign they're going to thrive, that beating heart is shunting blood to my brain, so I can think rather than a sign they're going to fail, they actually perform better. And we've shown this for students taking tests, especially students who are really nervous and anxious about how they're going to do on the test. We've shown that actually just getting them to reinterpret what they're feeling leads to better performance.

Shankar Vedantam: Sian, you once won an award from the National Academy of Sciences and you had to give a presentation at the Academy. You're very tense about it. Can you tell me how you employed some of these techniques to deal with your own anxiety?

Sian Beilock: Right. My family was there. My mom had flown out from California. I knew people were watching online and I was petrified. My mom and dad used to come watch me talk when I was a young academic and I hated it. It was like I was under so much stress. I have to physically turn away from my dad because every like frown or any mouth movement, I was like, "Oh, my God, I'm sounding like an idiot." And oftentimes, we actually see ironically that friendly faces, having your family and friends all there can create more pressure than if you didn't know anyone. And so I reminded myself that my sweaty palms and beating heart were not a bad sign. I also focus on something else, which I think is really important is that actually reminding yourself why you should succeed, "I know the material better than anyone else. Even if everyone in that room is way smarter than me, I know my own material. I'm the master of this." And actually focusing on why you should succeed can lead to better performance.

Shankar Vedantam: Sian and other researchers have also identified other techniques to keep athletes and performers in a state of flow where they are relying on their procedural memory rather than their working memory to carry out tasks they have already mastered. One way to keep your working memory from interfering is to give it unimportant things to do just to keep it occupied.

Sian Beilock: Well, remember we talked about sometimes we perform poorly under stress because we start paying too much attention to things that we shouldn't. And one of the ways to stop ourselves from paying attention is to do something else, so counting backwards, singing a song, focusing on one key thought. In golf, people have a swing thought. Or if you're giving a talk, focusing on the three take home points you want people to get. Anything that takes your mind off of overanalyzing every aspect of what you're doing can be really important.

Shankar Vedantam: Another technique is to focus on your breathing. Breathing slowly and deeply can calm you down, but focusing on your breath can also redirect your working memory to something other than what you are doing.

Sian Beilock: The breathing is another, I think, really important technique. It can take your mind off of what you're doing in a way that can be really good and it can also, again as you said, calm down your whole body in a way that can be really important, but I tend to think of breathing techniques as a great sort of crutch just like singing a song or focusing on your pinky toe, anything to take your mind off of what you shouldn't be focusing on in that moment.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you do this at all, Sian, in your own life? Do you actually try and sing a song in your head or focus on your breathing before you give an important presentation?

Sian Beilock: I do. So I played lacrosse in college and I was center, so I started the game with the draw and that was always really nerve wracking and I sang Take It Easy by The Eagles. I tried not to do it out loud because people would look at me weird and the song pops into my head now when I get nervous. In situations where I have to perform, it comes in there automatically.

Shankar Vedantam: The next time I see you're giving a public talk somewhere, I know what song is going through your head right before the talk begins.

Sian Beilock: Exactly.

Sian Beilock: Another thing I do right before a big event is I distract myself, which seems a little bit counterintuitive, but I'd argue that 10 minutes before is not the time to cram or to think about exactly how you're going to shoot the shot. It's to do something totally different. And I know a lot of professional athletes do this. Some listen to music. Some do crossword puzzles. I like to read like People Magazine online, something that just takes my mind off completely of where I'm going.

Shankar Vedantam: We've talked about how highly trained musicians and athletes can choke. One conclusion you might draw from this is that practice and experience are not very useful in preventing choking. That would be a mistake.

Sian Beilock: I think practice is so important. Practice is really important for developing fluent, automated processes on what you're doing. And what the practice does often is allow you not to have to focus on every step in every detail of what you're doing. And if you can do that, when you're playing a game, for example, then you are more likely to perform well. And ironically, you're less likely to remember what you just did. I always make a joke that when athletes are interviewed after a great and fantastic game, all they can do is thank their moms. They do that all the time because they don't remember what they did. They don't know what to say.

Sian Beilock: And it's because they were performing so automatically, it was actually almost outside of conscious awareness. And when you don't pay attention to something, you don't remember it.

Shankar Vedantam: When you learn a scale can also matter. Sian once conducted a study where she analyzed the age at which golfers started to play the game.

Sian Beilock: So my research and others have shown that when people learn actually really early, they often are protected from choking in these sorts of especially motor skills. It's almost as if they learn it differently and they're less likely to flub when it matters most.

Shankar Vedantam: What do you think is happening in the brain that causes this to happen?

Sian Beilock: Well, we know that, oftentimes when children learn activities, they learn them more in a more automatic fashion. They're not thinking about every step of what they're doing. Think about how the kid learns a language, right? It's just seeping in. And sometimes when you learn it in that way, you're protected from essentially being able to unpack it in a way that disrupts your performance.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, Sian, if you can talk a moment about when you did badly on that chemistry test in college, the thought that went through your mind was not, "I prepared for this the wrong way." The thought that went through my mind was, "I don't really belong in college." And you have to wonder how often that's happening to other people, people who feel like the pressure has gotten to them and they feel like they're out of place in a situation. Can we talk about the idea that choking can also be shaped by our families, organizations and cultures? Are there some environments that are more likely to produce choking than others?

Sian Beilock: I think this is really a great question because it hits on an important point that even though we're talking a lot about what's happening inside our head, what's happening inside our head is really affected by the environment that we're in, right? So if we walk into a situation and we feel like we shouldn't perform well because we've been historically excluded or we're the only woman in the room or people don't feel like we should do well, that can have an impact on how we perform. But if we walk into the same situation and feel like even if we don't do so well, people know that we can learn and get better, that there are examples of people not doing well in the past and being okay, that there's avenues for us to ask questions and not be judged, it all of a sudden can change people's attitude about what they can do. The environment has a big effect on how we feel about ourselves, and in essence, then how likely we are to choke.

Shankar Vedantam: We interviewed Claude Steele on Hidden Brain some months ago and a lot of his work focuses on the idea of stereotype threat which is that when you have stereotypes about you or your group, in some ways, you become more likely to prove those stereotypes true because you're so worried about the stereotype, so worried about showing that the stereotype is true that your performance ends up becoming impeded. And in some ways, it's not quite choking, I suppose, but it's a related phenomenon.

Sian Beilock: I've always argued to Claude that stereotype threat is just a form of choking. I think it is. I don't know if he agrees with me, but it is in my mind at least because the environment is essentially having an effect on how you think about yourself in that moment. You want to essentially live down some expectation that someone else has. You're worried about being evaluated based on whatever group you come from and that can affect how you interpret the situation. It can affect what you focus on and can also affect how you interpret your bodily reactions, right? If I have sweaty palms and a beating heart and I am excited to do something and I'm ready to go, that will actually lead to better performance, but if I have sweaty palms and beating heart and I'm worried about confirming the stereotype, my performance might actually get worse.

Shankar Vedantam: So I'm wondering how we should think about what individuals should do. So in other words, I think one of the things that I was picking up, as you were talking, is that, in some ways, the deck is stacked unfairly against some people. If you're a first-generation college student, for example, you might be experiencing more pressure being in college than if multiple members of your family have been to college over several generations. And so you're more likely to choke, but it's clear that it's partly the result of structural and environmental factors over which you have no control. But of course, we are relying on individuals in some ways to address those problems because we're locating the problem of choking in individuals. There is some tension there, is there not, between thinking about choking as an individual phenomenon and the problem of choking as a structural phenomenon.

Sian Beilock: I think you're really right and I think it's an individual phenomenon and how it's mostly been studied, but it is also a structural phenomenon. And the example you gave, I would argue that it is the organization's responsibility, the college or university, to recognize that that might be the case and just start putting structures in place to help ensure that those students who come in, say, first generation who might feel as if they shouldn't perform as well have supports so that they can. At Barnard, we just started a whole new office, an initiative called Access Barnard. That is for first-generation, low-income and international students designed to do exactly what you're talking about which is essentially take some of the extra cognitive load or burden, I would argue that they shoulder not necessarily being as familiar with American higher education. And I would say that ability is way more widespread than opportunity. And as we think about how to make sure that everyone with that ability is able to be at the table and thrive, we have to as organizational leaders and as organizations think about the structures. They can't just be an individual responsibility.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering, Sian, if we can talk a moment about some of the work that's looked at airline cockpits, for example. Compared to 50 or 60 years ago, airline cockpits today are designed to assume that pilots are going to make mistakes. And the goal of the cockpit is not to say, "Unless you're perfect, something bad is going to happen to you." The goal of the cockpit now is to say, "We know that things are going to fail from time to time. We know that pilots are going to make mistakes. The goal of the cockpit now is to minimize those mistakes. And secondly, when the mistakes happen, to minimize the consequences of those mistakes." Is there a sort of societal implication for this body of work, which is talking about the ways in which we can generally reduce pressure overall?

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I love this line of thinking. It's like the goal of life shouldn't be that we're not going to make mistakes, it should be that we are going to make mistakes and how do we recover, reduce the impact. And I think that's true in so many situations. So I think the cockpit is a great example. I also think it's true in how people lead organizations. So leaders, for example, talking about the mistakes they've made, any way that makes it okay for people to make mistakes and learn and grow. And what you want to be talking about is, how can you make it so we're educating people about how to minimize when an accident happens or minimize injury and how to learn from it and how to speak up and know that one mistake is not the end of the world.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you think that, as a society, we also glorify pressure to some extent, Sian, that in some ways we credit people who are able to do well under pressure as being exceptional? There are clearly situations where you want people who are very good at dealing with pressure. If you're a firefighter, you definitely want firefighters to be able to respond well under pressure because presumably that's when the firefighters are doing their most important work. But there are many situations in life where I feel like we use pressure to test people into professions. And those professions actually don't call for a lot of functioning under pressure, which begs the question of why we're using pressure situations to evaluate people.

Sian Beilock: Yeah, I think it's a really fair point. What I would argue is that we shouldn't be using any one situation to decide whether people succeed or whether they can go on or whether they're fit for the job. In classrooms, many of our professors at Barnard have stepped away from just having a midterm and a final to multiple assessments throughout the quarter or the semester. It turns out that when you assess people multiple times, they actually learn more because taking a test is also a place to learn what you know and what you don't know, but it also gives a whole picture and a more holistic picture. And I think that's true across the board. I think one reason that job interviews or these assessments, situations are just one shot is because it's easier to do it that way. But the question is, does easier lead you essentially to the best outcome? And I think oftentimes, the answer is no.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist Sian Beilock is president of Barnard College. She's also the author of "Choke: What the Secrets Of The Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To." Sian Beilock, thank you so much for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Sian Beilock: It was so fun. Thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Bridgid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Kristin Wong, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Sendhil Mullainathan. He's a researcher at the University of Chicago and a friend of the show. He told me some time ago about how cockpits were redesigned to take pilot error into account and how we should think of designing other systems like our schools and hospitals with the same insight. I've always found Sendhil to be a great source of ideas and inspiration. Thanks, Sendhil. If you liked this episode, please be sure to share it with three friends. If you're new to podcasting, please show them how to subscribe to our show. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

Cate Campbell: I make a point to not focus on medals or times because that's very outcome dependent. But if I can hit the wall and I can say that is the best performance that I could have given on this day and I did it under pressure, under the lights in the final of a race, then I can walk away happy whatever the result.


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