Under Pressure

From fancy coaches to expensive Kaplan classes, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to helping people perform when it really matters. But, says UCSD alumnus Sian Beilock, the key to succeeding when the stakes are high isn’t just clocking in as many hours as possible, but practicing in the right environment. And once someone is in front of the test booklet — or the podium, or the field — the secret to preventing a breakdown is captured by one very short, very famous phrase: Just do it. 

Beilock is a cognitive scientist known for her research into “choking,” or why even highly trained professionals break down under pressure. She’s worked with novice golfers to discover that overthinking leads to failure, and elementary school teachers to identify why young girls are afraid of math. Her findings stem from an interest that began when she was an undergrad at Marshall College, feeling pressure in and out of the classroom.

Beilock, now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, is well-known for her research and has been featured on NPR, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but the alumnus said she wasn’t always intent on becoming a scientist. At one point, the Bay Area native was interested in law school, and it was only an 11th-hour change of heart that led her to La Jolla.

“I had already decided that I was going to go to Amherst,” she said. “But at the last second, I decided that UCSD was right for me because of the programs in psych and cog sci and I thought it’d be nice to be so close to the beach.”

It was at UCSD that classes such as Introduction to Cognitive Science and Cognitive Psychology whetted her interest in the workings of the mind. Beilock also played on the lacrosse team for four years, and here her interest in athleticism intersected with classes to help develop her area of research.

“In cog sci, I started learning about how people got good at what they do, but there wasn’t a whole lot of information about why people screw up,” Beilock said. “I was feeling the pressure in the classroom and on the lacrosse field, and so I became interested in the topic early.”

These dual interests in human performance and the brain continued after Beilock graduated in 1997 with a degree in cognitive science. She next earned two PhDs, in kinesiology and psychology, from Michigan State University in 2003. 

In one study published when Beilock was still a graduate student, she and her colleagues split 54 novice golfers into three groups and then trained them in different environments A control group learned under normal conditions, but the researchers engineered “distracting” and “self-conscious” environments for the two other groups. Members of the distraction group were asked to practice while listening to a tape and repeating a target word while, most terrifyingly, the final group trained with a video camera and the rather grim assertion that pros would be judging the tapes. 

The groups were then tested in two situations, one with low pressure and one  where the athletes were told that improvement would result in monetary awards. All the golfers performed equally on the low-pressure test, but  when the stakes were high, the video camera performed better, while the normal group choked.

Beilock said that this and similar experiments show that practicing in an environment that mimics the actual competition fends off underperformance. She gave the example of test preparation — while a student’s vocab cards and test-taking strategies might predict good scores, the trick to having a satisfying repeat on the real thing is taking timed practices, not reviewing the meaning of “peroration” yet again.

And when test day comes, the  key is  to stop second-guessing yourself and think about something else. Under high-stress situations, especially athletic competition, the working memory portion of the brain begins overthinking movements that are usually automatic, thus disrupting the mind’s flow. Beilock found that when golfers count backwards by threes or sings a song, the working memory is occupied, unable to overthink, and people do better. 

“Sometimes, being conscious of our movements makes us choke,” she said. “It causes anxiety when you’re thinking ‘oh, my knee is contracting like this and my elbow is contracting like that,’ and paying too much attention creates a buildup that wastes valuable space in the brain.”

For those who don’t fancy humming aloud on the LSAT, a separate experiment showed that having students write about test worries for 10 minutes before the exam improved their scores, especially for those who usually suffer from text anxiety. 

“Think of the mind like a computer,” she said. “All those worries deplete the working memory of your brain, so instead of focusing on the actual issue at hand, you’re distracted by your worries. So writing it down frees the attention and lets people better focus on the task at hand.”

Now, Beilock has a grant from the Department of Education to study math anxiety. She found that teachers, especially female teachers at the elementary school level, are often anxious about their own mathematical skills, and can pass this along to their students. Namely, the more insecure teacher is about her math abilities, the more her students are likely to believe the stereotype that boys are good at math and girls at reading, even if there was no previous difference. 

In addition to her continuing work on performance under pressure, and new research on elementary education, Beilock turned her findings into a book called Choke, published in 2010.

“I really think scientists have a responsibility to share their findings with everyone,” she said. “Especially if it impacts people like this and can have a positive effect on how people work. I use the writing technique now, everyone in my lab does, we all do what we can to improve our lives.” 

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