Do you choke under pressure? Depends on what you're trying to accomplish

[This article was originally published in December, 2006]

Take a look at these two images. Do they belong in the same category or different categories?


You say the same? Wrong -- they're different! The one on the right is a little blurrier.

What about these two?


ResearchBlogging.orgThese are in the same category. Sure, the one on the right is still blurrier, but now it's rotated a bit, so that puts the two objects back in the same category. My rule for categorizing is complex, involving both blurriness and rotation (I'll explain how it works later on).

How do you think you would do if you were tested on these categories? Do you think you'd do better or worse if you were put in a high pressure situation? Suppose you were being tested along with a partner, and if each of you could categorize 80 percent of the items correctly, then you'd both get a $10 bonus. Suppose your partner had already passed the test, so now your score would determine if you and your partner would get the bonus. Would you choke under pressure?

It turns out, with a test like this, you'd probably do better. But in an easier test, where you were only asked to categorize based on a single rule such as blurriness or rotation, you'd do worse under pressure. That's what a team led by Arthur Markman discovered in a recent study. Inspired in part by research we've discussed on CogDaily showing that people with larger working memory are more likely to choke under pressure, the team hypothesized that people would also be less likely to choke under pressure on tasks that don't rely so much on working memory.

Paradoxically, the more complex categorization tasks rely less on working memory. Take a look at this graph:


The green dot represents the figure on the left in the two examples above. In graph a, categories are defined solely based on sharpness, so blurrier images are in one category, and sharper images are in the other. In graph b, categories depend on both sharpness and rotation, so an equally blurry image can be in two different categories, depending on rotation. That's how the second image, both blurrier and rotated compared to the first image, manages to be in the same category. This type of categorization is too difficult to process with working memory, Markman's team argues, so it's processed using "information-integration."

Pressure to perform well places demands on working memory, but not on information-integration, so we perform better on this sort of task when we're under pressure. In the experiment, participants were placed into two groups -- high-pressure and low-pressure. The high-pressure group was told the story about their partner passing the test and both partners' rewards depending on their own performance. The low-pressure group was simply asked to do the best they could. Half of each group was given an information-integration task where two rules had to be applied simultaneously. The other half was given the simpler, single rule-based task. Here are the results:


The high-pressure group performed significantly better than the low-pressure group on the information-integration task, but choked compared to the low pressure group on the rule-based task. Markman et al. argue that this result demonstrates that we can excel under pressure at tasks which don't rely on working memory.

These results suggest something about how to approach high-pressure situations in general: try to limit the demands on your working memory when you're in high-pressure situations. Do you have any practical ideas on how to limit use of working memory? Let us know in the comments.

Arthur B. Markman, W. Todd Maddox, Darrell A. Worthy (2006). Choking and Excelling Under Pressure Psychological Science, 17 (11), 944-948 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01809.x

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You ask if the images belong in the same category (without defining what a category is) then say WRONG if you think they belong in the same "category". I have a test for you.

Do the two letters below belong in the same category?

t T

If you said yes....youre wrong because one is capitalized!

If you said no....youre wrong because theyre both the letter T!

Annoying isnt it?

By Berry Zito (not verified) on 11 Aug 2008 #permalink

to release working memory ? take a paper and a pencil, and start sketching your problem. Ho ! that's exactly what I do everyday (and what others do too), amazing !

"when the pressure increases, pencil appears" the first law of cognition. ;-)

None of the above image pairs represent "items in the same category."

In each case, one is in the category of "image on the left", and the other is an "image on the right".

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 11 Aug 2008 #permalink

The biggest form of stress is what you show right off - being given a task without appropriate instructions. Your example, as others have commented, is fundamentally flawed because you make claims as to what category something belongs in based on a ruleset that you have not communicated to the person being tested. That itself causes stress, when you know you're being graded and judged arbitrarily based on something you have NO WAY of knowing beforehand.

By Alvin Brinson (not verified) on 11 Aug 2008 #permalink

To limit our use of working memory in high-pressure situations, I suppose the more we have practiced or rehearsed a task, the better our automaticity and the more we can "do without thinking". In the case you gave us, we would need to first prepare with similar types of tests, so that when the presssure was added, we would use well-developed rules rather than relying on novel solutions.

I'm doing a lit review on expertise at the moment - this was meant to be loafing!

The keys to reducing WM load are automaticity, externalisation and chunking (but I'm sure you knew this).

The way to force automation on the first task would be to perform the categorisation with a visual WM load - remembering a pattern etc. If the task was learned under these conditions, subjects would have to automate the process, and should therefore improve performance under pressure.

How people categorize objects or things is intrinsic to past learning and/or experiences. Categorizing can be based on the character of the material itself or the content of the material. If you look in some one elses file cabinet how they file and how you or I file is going to be different. Depending on the size of a file there may be sub folders and maybe even sub of sub folders. Some people are happiest generalizing and others feel the need to be very specific.