Don't Choke

I've gotten a lot of emails from people about my recent WSJ article, which looked at the superstar effect, choking and performance anxiety. Most of the letters ask a similar question:

Can anything be done to prevent choking? Or are we destined to sabotage ourselves when it matters the most?

Let's begin with the bad news: choking, which I'll define as "performing below skill level due to performance related anxieties," is far more prevalent than most people assume. In recent years, choking has been shown to underlie everything from the achievement gap to the poor performance of girls on math tests. It afflicts professional golfers and public speakers, opera stars and creative problem solvers.

However, there are reliable ways to reduce the possibility of choking. In 2008, Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock, psychologists at the University of Western Australia, performed a study of 20 experienced golfers with handicaps ranging from zero to 12. The scientists had the golfers play under three separate conditions. In the first, they were told to fixate on specific components of their swing, such as "hips" or "straight wrist". The second condition consisted of the golfers focusing on irrelevant words, such as "blue" or "white". In the third, the golfers were told to focus on general aspects of their intended movement, or what the psychologists refer to as a "holistic cue word". For instance, rather than contemplating the precise position of their wrist, they contemplated descriptive adjectives such as "smooth" or "balanced". To make the experiment a bit more realistic, and to induce some anxiety, the scientists awarded a modest cash prize to the best golfer.

Gucciardi and Dimmock got two interesting results: the first was that anxiety only interfered with performance when it was coupled with self-consciousness. Nervous golfers who thought about the details of their swing, such as how to position their hips, hit consistently worse shots. That makes sense, since one of the main causes of choking is "thinking too much," as we start analyzing actions (like a golf swing) that are best performed on autopilot.

The second interesting result was that there was a way to ward off choking. When the expert golfers contemplated a holistic cue word, their performance was no longer affected by anxiety. Because the positive adjectives were vague and generic, they didn't cause the athletes to lose the flow of expert performance or overrule their automatic brain.

I've always mocked those silly motivational posters, which feature lofty adjectives like "courage" and "strength" and some inspiring photograph of a soaring eagle or snow capped mountain. (It didn't help that my freshman roommate filled our dorm room with these posters.) But this research suggests that the pictures might actually work, at least to the extent they allow us to fixate on the cliche in capital letters. Thinking about "determination" won't make us more determined, but it just might keep us from choking.

Sian Beilock, one of the researchers I wrote about in the WSJ article, has also led a really clever study that illuminates another way to prevent choking, at least when it comes to solving math problems. It turns out that that inner monologue of anxieties causing us to choke - this includes the golfer fretting about his swing and the student worrying about her algebra abilities - depends largely on the left prefrontal cortex. This makes sense, as the left prefrontal cortex has long been associated with working memory tasks that consist of verbal information. (Think, for instance, of a sample word problem on a math test.) Since our worries take the form of words, it makes perfect sense that they'd get stuck in the left PFC.

Interestingly, it turns out that simple differences in presentation can influence whether or not a math problem gets processed as a "verbal" problem or as a "spatial" problem. (More spatial problems, such as rotating an object in your mind, are more likely to be processed in the right PFC.) For instance, when an arithmetic problem is presented horizontally (84 - 18 = 66) it's seen as more verbal, since we're "reading" the numbers from left to right, just like a sentence. In contrast, when a problem is presented vertically it's seen as more spatial:


In other words, merely changing the presentation of the problem can dramatically alter how the brain processes the information. This allowed Beilock and colleagues to explore the effects of vertical and horizontal math problems on student performance. Her hypothesis was that horizontal problems, since they depend on the same brain area as verbal anxieties, might be more vulnerable to choking and pressure. After all, the same bit of brain can only contemplate so many things at once: if we're worrying about our performance, there's going to be less processing power left over to deal with the actual numbers.

The experiment went like this: a group of female undergraduates was given a series of simple math problems. Some students were given the problems in a horizontal presentation, while others were given them in a vertical fashion. Then, half of the female students were exposed to a stereotype about women and math ability. They were told, for instance, that "men outnumber women in math departments" and that "there is a good deal of evidence that men score higher on standardized tests of quantitative ability". This was the stereotype threat condition, and it built on decades of research demonstrating that reminding people of a stereotype can decrease performance by increasing anxiety.

Sure enough, the activation of the stereotype led to decreased performance, but only on the horizontal problems. The reason has to do with the local processing differences of the PFC, and the fact that horizontal problems depended on the same cortical areas that were also worried about our math performance. In contrast, performance on vertical problems was unaffected, since our right prefrontal cortex wasn't distracted by our anxieties or threatened by those untrue stereotypes.

The moral is that even minor tweaks can help reduce the performance problems caused by choking. Given the newfound importance of standardized tests - and this includes everything from high-school graduation exams to the SAT - we really need to better understand how the act of being testing warps the results. This is especially true for groups (women, minorities, etc.) that have been subject to various stereotypes. Sometimes, all it takes is a math problem presented in a different direction.

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I'm not sure I buy the reasoning of the second bit of research. Thinking back to school the majority of the math problems I was ever given in a text book, homework paper, or test were written vertically. I'm always going to have an easier time solving the one written vertically because it's more familiar. I don't know that you could say from that experiment if it's a verbal vs spatial issue rather than a unfamiliar vs familiar.

A classical article in 1982 discussed the efficacy of the Beta-blocker, propranolol, in the management of stage fright. ( and a generation of musicians have used it or a more modern version since. I suspect that a good # of the golfers in Augusta were using a variant.

Hmm... I think there's a bit more going on here. One of the reasons arithmetic such as addition, subtraction and multiplication is presented vertically is because the position of each digit within a number is significant and the outcomes of operations on one column of digits can affect how the next column is processed. In other words, it's easier to "carry the one" when digits are lined up vertically.

So it's not just that the horizontal layout is processed in a different part of the brain, it's that the brain must first visualize the horizontal layout as a vertical layout or must manually seek the corresponding numbers in each column rather than being able to rely on the vertical alignment of the digits. Whichever is true, solving a horizontal problem involves mental steps that are unnecessary with a vertically oriented problem.

So that means there's two possible explanations for why the stereotype threat effect would be more pronounced in horizontal problems. One is that the area of the brain distracted by performance anxiety plays a significant role in solving horizontally oriented problems. But the other is that the effect of performance anxiety is related to the overall mental difficulty of the task at hand.

I suppose one way to test for this is to repeat the experiment, but instead of using horizontal vs. vertical problems, use addition and multiplication problems (both oriented vertically). If it's simply a matter of the complexity of the problem, the effect of anxiety should be more pronounced for those doing multiplication. On the other hand, if it's because horizontal problems are treated as "word problems", then the anxiety priming should effect both groups similarly.

By Mark Kawakami (not verified) on 13 Apr 2010 #permalink

I was really intrigued by this article, I am and athlete and I spent a number of hours researching the skills that help keep athletes from choking. Your article was helpful.

Sian Beilock presented some of her research to the lab I worked in at Columbia - a super researcher. Her method of ferreting out the math vs verbal labeling is very clever. It might be interested to put in a group of Hebrew readers ( r to l) and Chinese readers (up to down) to further control her variables!

There is a simple acupressure technique called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) that can eliminate most kinds of anxiety in a very short time, often minutes. That includes choking. By simply focusing on the fear feeling or negative self talk and gently touching or tapping 9 acupressure points, mostly on the face, the fear dissolves completely. This is extremely easy to learn Apparently the tapping on acupressure points raises the serotonin in the brain and floods the amygdala, seat of the fear, to disconnect the trigger.

Gloria, please link to the study showing how "tapping acupressure points" increases serotonin in the amygdala (not that it proves a reduction in fear anyway). Else stop pushing your quackery on this comment section.

Good stuff, Jonah!
Related to the "superstar effect" is the "hyper-critical coach/parent effect". In the same way that a nearby superstar causes anxiety and micro self-focus on skills, it would seem the screaming coach or parent takes the player out of their "auto-zone" and makes their every move self-conscious.
Compare the coaching styles of Frank Martin of Kansas State and Butler's Brad Stevens. Martin is a screamer with plenty of on-court antics. Stevens is calm, rarely "showing up" his players with verbal abuse.

Cockiness is the adaptation that overcomes performance anxiety. I talk about this specifically in my book.

Ever notice how cocky professional athletes are?

It's not because their success has gone to their heads. Their cockiness made this success available.

To deal with my stage fight when doing stand up, my therapist suggested I imagine everyone in the room naked. Unfortunately, the next gig my agent booked was at a nudist colony.

I also find the use of âholistic phrasesâ, often with the added idea of repeating them (or posting them) an undisciplined way to engage life. But there is a piece of truth to the idea; it is just incompletely conceptualized, I think. It is not the word per se, but the picture it creates in the mind that matters. I work with corporate executives and find when they have a clear image of âwho the company is" when it is most unique and distinctive in what it provides to real people (holistic terms), it is difficult to distract the executive with wasteful worrying and âchokingâ. And they achieve far better results than they initially targeted with numbers. But when they have numerical performance indices primarily, the anxiety is very high and distraction very easyâ likely for relief of the anxiety. Finding a âholisticâ, but grounded image of what will be resulting from the effort of the work, an image that they can hold in mind and use to assess progress, is a much better means of achieving extraordinary outcomes. And tracking to see if people are doing things the way someone has told them to, is the worst way to get results. It is like watching your wrist, or that of others. The golf research makes perfect sense to me in watching leaders who are successful and those who are not.

Few people perform better under pressure while others like to be given ample space/time/resources to showcase their best in assigned tasks/activity. I guess this study talks about the latter half personnel IMHO.

It's unclear to me in the experiment described whether the golfers where thinking about their word: "wrist", "blue",or "balanced" or focusing on their wrists, or a general body sense when using "balanced". There is a difference between thinking about the words and feeling the physical sensations. Golfers using "balanced" were more likely to be focussed on what their body was doing and not thinking. See my earlier post on Michael Jackson who said you don't think when you dance.
This 'not thinking' when you are doing takes some training, especially when the thinking involves self-judgement. My aunt, whom I talk with everyday, in spite of having had a number of small left hemisphere strokes that severly hamper her ability to use and understand language, nevertheless, has the awareness to know that she is now limited in language use, and other ways, and is often filled with self-loathing. She takes this out on herself and others. The only remedy that works is to remind her that she can still do someting useful for others, that is bless them and pray for them, and enjoy the sensual moments of her day.
There is a very successful TV series currently running that is based on our self-judgement and how we have done in life and how that judgement follows us. Watch the earlier years on DVD and don't read ahead about current episodes of LOST. Recommended!

Please consider the term "prefrontal cortex" and realize that such a thing doesn't exist, except in cases of very severe head injury, when its presence is sometimes accompanied by the phenomenon of "postoccipital cortex". The term "frontal cortex" is fully sufficient to name the brain region in question.

Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps a form of subconsciousness --- I wouldnât know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness. (Aaron Copland)

How did the golfers who thought of irrelevant words compare with the ones who thought of holistic cue words? I'm particularly curious as I consistently choke in my dart matches - unless I am thinking about something completely irrelevant. (We have semifinals next week, and I plan to wear earplugs to shut out the team's encouragement, which usually results in a dart completely off the board, and to help me think of something else while shooting.)

Choked all through high school.
Found out YEARS later allergy related.
Seasons can bring it on & social situations.
Hope it won't happen again.
Anxiety,panic,nerves; all so frustrating.
If inside..i go outside & look at the sky
& breath deep in through my nose out through the mouth.
If in situation can't leave..anger,disgust,embarrassment.
Thank God if i didn't pee or shit my pants(humor).. tears roll down my face from uncontrolable hacking(cough)
Also mom,aunt & grandma did/do the same thing,..tense ladies.
Whoopee ..ain't life grand? burp,fart,shit,piss,snot :)
Postal person..kinda OUT THERE in the public. Never miss a days work because of it - yea ! :) Jesus saves !

Has anyone done a study asking students to answer the same set of question twice. Once with the questions presented horizontally and the other with the questions presented vertically and then connect the results to measurements of working memory capacity to see if there is a correlation?

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