Choking is a ubiquitous and extremely frustrating human weakness – as the stakes are raised, our performance usually improves, but only up to a point, beyond which the pressure gets too much and our skills suddenly deteriorate. Any new psychological tricks to ameliorate this problem will be welcomed by sports competitors, students and anyone else who needs to be at their best under high pressure situations.
A fascinating paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience documents a new technique for reducing choking that has to do with altering how you look at what is at stake. Moreover, the research shows how this act of reappraisal is reflected in altered activity in a key brain area that’s previously been implicated in how well we can maintain our fine motor control under pressure.
Important to understanding the new research is a study published a few years ago. A team led by Vikram Chib at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine first showed – just as you’d expect – that as they raised the monetary stakes, people were more likely to choke at a computer-based task that required fine motor control and coordination, and that this was especially true for people who are more “loss averse”, as identified by their choices in an earlier gambling game – that is, these folk were more motivated to avoid losing money they had, rather than risking what money they had to gain more (loss aversion is a general human tendency, but some people are more loss averse than others).
The researchers also scanned their participants’ brains during the task and found the behavioural results were reflected in the activity of a key brain structure known as the ventral striatum. As the stakes on offer were raised, this was at first mirrored in increased activity in this brain structure (an effect also well-established by prior research). However, among highly loss averse participants, when they began the motor task, activity in their ventral striatum dramatically reduced, and there was less communication between this brain structure and motor control regions at the front of the brain. And the more this happened, the more the participants tended to choke and their performance suffer.
The researchers interpreted this as a kind of neurally mediated switch in mindset – once the loss averse participants started performing, they saw the large monetary prize on offer not as something to be gained, but something to be lost if they failed at the task – thus, triggering an aversive emotional reaction, mediated by lost activity in ventral striatum, and contributing to consequent counterproductive loss of motor control.
This postulated switching process is critical for understanding the new technique for reducing choking, which I’ll come to shortly.
Intriguingly, when the researchers altered the stakes of the task, so that there was no money to be won, but rather success meant keeping (i.e. not losing) money the participants already had, then the more loss averse participants were now less prone to choking at higher monetary amounts (and this was reflected in their showing a smaller reduction of ventral striatum activity during performance of the task, thus avoiding the adverse effect this lost activity could have on motor control).
This earlier surprising finding is the inspiration for the new technique for reducing choking. It seems non-sensical at first: why would loss averse participants be less adversely affected by the pressure of performing to avoid the risk of losing a large amount of money? The researchers think it’s because of the aforementioned neurally mediated mindset switch, but this time operating in the other direction – the participants saw success as a chance to gain the at-risk money, which for them was less aversive than the other “perform-to-win money” scenario (in turn, in the “performing-to-keep their money” situation they did not experience counterproductive emotional and neural effects on their performance).
Now we come to the new research – inspired by their previous results, Chib and his colleagues, including first author Simon Dunne at the California Institute of Technology, wondered if, in a typical “perform-to-win money” scenario, it might be possible for participants to consciously alter how they viewed these stakes – to pretend, in effect, that they were performing to avoid losing their money, thus tricking their brains into staying calmer under pressure.
The researchers used the same computer-based motor task in a brain scanner as before and, in a baseline control condition, they showed that when the monetary reward for success was high, participants were more likely to choke. But then they coached their participants to reappraise the stakes – to simply imagine that they already had the high prize money on offer and were performing for the chance to keep that money.
This mental technique dramatically reduced choking, and in fact it did so for all participants, not just those who were more loss averse (it’s possible the strength of the intervention overshadowed any differences in individuals’ loss aversion tendencies). Also, this beneficial effect of the reappraisal strategy was reflected in reduced activity levels in the ventral striatum specifically at the time that the stakes were first presented to the participants, when activity in this structure would normally encode the greater amounts of money on offer (it’s as if the brain was tricked into being less focused on the size of the stakes). Also, the more that ventral striatum activity was reduced during the presentation of the stakes, the less the participants choked.
In the new study, the researchers also measured participants’ skin conductance on their fingers – a measure of perspiration that signals greater stress levels. They found that in the reappraisal condition participants no longer showed signs of heightened stress when they failed at the task – further evidence that the reappraisal intervention had taken the pressure out of the situation.
Let’s put this new study in context. High stakes or incentives usually trigger choking by having an adverse effect on our emotional and cognitive control. Previously identified strategies for stopping choking have therefore focused on containing or countering these adverse effects – by using distraction, for instance, or forms of bodily relaxation, or visualising success. This new research represents a novel approach that is about reframing how one views the stakes at play, so that they do not even trigger such counterproductive cognitive and emotional processes in the first place.
“Because this intervention targets the incentive directly, it may have the advantage of being applicable to a greater range of domains in which choking is caused by the effect of the incentive …” the researchers said.
The researchers do not give examples of other contexts where this approach might be applied*. While it might be wise to wait for future research to test any such possibilities, I can imagine that in an academic exam context, you could try imagining you already had the university place and were performing to keep it; or in a sports context, you could imagine you already have the league points on the board and were performing to keep them.
*I contacted them but have not heard back yet.