SCIENCE
11/07/2014 08:38 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Why We 'Choke' Under Pressure, According To Neuroscience

ASSOCIATED PRESS

During the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, all eyes were on the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team, who won the team gold in gymnastics for America for the first time since 1996. But during the individual vault event, all eyes were on one U.S. gymnast in particular: McKayla Maroney. The 16-year-old gymnast had chosen for the team in large part because of her impressive skill in vaulting, and she was all but guaranteed to win gold in the event.

But when the time came for Maroney to sprint down the runway and spring off the apparatus, her gaze intent and her eyes on the prize, Maroney choked. She completely botched her performance, landing on the mat on her rear end. Needless to say, she lost the gold.

“It happens,” Maroney said afterwards. “It’s gymnastics, and you can’t be perfect. Sometimes, things don’t go as planned. I don’t blame it on anything else. I just messed up.”

Choking is a common, though agonizing, story for most professional athletes and performers. And it usually has nothing to do with a lack of skill, but rather, the pressure of the immense gains or losses that are at stake.

“Choking isn’t just poor performance," University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, author of Choke, told Smithsonian. "It is worse performance than you are capable of precisely because there is a lot on the line.”

Moments of "just messing up" in high-pressure situations may seem random and uncontrollable, but scientists are beginning to demystify just why it is that we choke, and how we might be able to prevent such high-stakes errors.

It turns out that being too attached to winning may have been what caused Maroney to choke, according to some new research from neuroscientists Johns Hopkins University.

Whether you choke under pressure might have more to do with your motivation: specifically, to what extent that you are driven by a desire to win or by a desire to avoid losing. If you're very loss-averse -- meaning that you hate losing more than you love winning -- your chances of choking will be lower. But for those who value the rush of winning over the pain of losing, the likelihood of choking is often higher.

The Johns Hopkins study found that those who hated losing the most choked when told that they stood to win the most, while those who cared more about winning choked when they stood to lose something significant. In other words, it's all about how you frame the incentive: as a loss or as a gain.

“We can measure someone’s loss aversion and then frame the task in a way that might help them avoid choking under pressure,” Vikram Chib, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

The researchers explain this phenomenon by looking at the ventral striatum, a brain region that may connect incentive-driven motivation and the execution of physical performance. The activity of this brain region suggests that an individual's attachment to winning is key to how they perform under pressure.

They proved it with this experiment: 26 adult participants, between the ages of 20 and 30, were tested on two consecutive days. They learned a brief but difficult video game requiring precise hand control on the first day. On the second day, the participants were placed in an MRI machine. Before each two-second round of the game, they were told what the stakes for that round would be: Losing $100 in cash, gaining $100 or anything in between, based on how they performed. The amount of money that the subjects got to take home was determined at random based on their performance on one of the 300 rounds, which gave them an incentive to perform their best in each round.

Separately, the participants were asked a series of theoretical questions about what they would gamble and how much risk they'd take for various outcomes, so that the researchers could determine their level of loss aversion.

“We found that the way we framed an incentive -- as a potential gain or loss -- had a profound effect on participants’ behavior as they performed the skilled task,” Chib said in the statement. “But the effect was different for those with high versus low aversion to loss.”

High loss aversion actually helped participants when they faced increasing losses -- they didn't choke, even when the loss was up to $100. Those with high loss aversion performed well when there were potential gains of $25 or $50, but when offered a $100 reward, they choked. The opposite happened to those with low loss aversion: their performance improved with both increasing prospective gains and increasing prospective losses, but they choked when threatened with a $100 loss.

While all of this was happening, MRI images were being taken of the participants' brains, focusing on the ventral striatum, that small area of the brain associated with reward processing and movement control. They saw that when both loss and gain incentives were presented, ventral striatum activity increased with the magnitude of the stakes.

More loss-averse participants had lower striatal activity (and thus performed worse) when playing for large potential wins, whereas more winning-attached participants had less striatal activity (and worse performance) when attempting to avoid losing.

"We have known from previous studies that the ventral striatum is responsible for representing information about incentives and motor performance, but this study shows how it mediates the relationship between incentives and performance," Chib explained in an email to the Huffington Post. "We show that in the situations when people choke under pressure there is a break down in the connectivity between ventral striatum and the motor cortex (the are responsible for coordinating our movements). These breakdown in communication between these areas could be causing individuals to choke under pressure."

So how can we apply this information to improve our own performance? One way would be to use cognitive strategies to reframe high-stakes situations so as to help minimize your chances of poor performance. So if you're someone who plays to win, try to avoid framing the situation more in terms of what you could stand to lose.

"From this study, it seems that knowing an individuals’s loss aversion could be used to determine the best way to frame incentives in the workplace," Chib added.

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