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Have you ever blown it on a standardized test? Had your mind go blank during a job interview? Faced a situation of enormous urgency and…totally underwhelmed yourself?

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If you’ve ever been puzzled by your inability to do under pressure tasks that you usually find a snap, you can now soothe yourself with the thought that your breakdown may be due to your big brain.


At the AAAS meeting earlier this month, University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock presented her finding that talented people fail under pressure more than less-talented people do. This is because talented folks (the particular skill that Dr. Beilock tested is the ability to do math problems) possess greater ‘working memory’ than other people. Stress, however, consumes working memory, so that stressful situations have a leveling effect, bringing the performance of talented people more in line with that of less talented people (who rely on means other than working memory to solve problems, and whose performance is therefore less impacted by stress).

The University of Chicago has a press release, here.

The full paper citation is as follows: Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2005). When high-powered people fail: Working memory and “choking under pressure” in math. Psychological Science, 16, 101-105.

Image: iStockPhoto.

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