Why People Choke Under Pressure

There are some people in this world who consistently work well under pressure and those who just don't. To try to understand why this happens, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and California Institute of Technology took a look at the neurology behind the phenomenon of “choking” when the stakes are high.

To conduct their study, researchers recruited 26 men and women to practice playing a mentally taxing video game while lying down in an M.R.I. machine. The researchers gave each participant $100 in real money, which they might add to or lose during the game, since before each game, the researchers would name a figure from $0 to $100 as the possible “stakes.” To increase the pressure to perform as well as possible on every game, the researchers told participants that just one randomly chosen game from the hundreds played during the session would determine how much money was won or lost. Afterward, to measure a person's aversion to loss, the researchers had the participants make bets on virtual coin tosses. The M.R.I. recorded all brain activity during all the games.

The results surprised the researchers. They found that people who were highly averse to losing money, appeared more likely to choke when they were given an opportunity to win more money. At the same time, people found to have a low aversion to loss appeared to choke consistently when they were faced with losing $100. In other words, people supposed to be averse to losing choked only when they might win; people supposed to be not bothered by losses did poorly when faced with losing.

The researchers suggested that the "choke" reaction may have to do with how people frame a win/lose situation. People who don’t like losses, for instance, may also have an exaggerated fear of failure, so they see the chance to win $100 not as a chance for gain, but as an opportunity to fail. The scientists say they hope to do more research on why people choke in high-pressure situations, but noted that one practical takeway from their study is that people need to try to understand their real tolerance for loss and frame any high-stakes situation in that context. 

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Sourced from: NY Times, The Psychology of Choking Under Pressure