[Paleopsych] CHE: Making a Living on Choking Under Pressure

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Making a Living on Choking Under Pressure
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.2


    For any ambitious young scholar just hitting the job market, choking
    under pressure is a real occupational hazard.

    Consider Sian L. Beilock: As she was leaving Michigan State University
    two years ago with two Ph.D.'s, in kinesiology and cognitive
    psychology, she got 12 invitations for job interviews right off the
    bat. That might sound like a giddy prospect, but it contained a hint
    of menace: What if her academic stock, painstakingly built up during
    years of research, suddenly plummeted in the glare of a few three-hour

    As it turned out, the psychological phenomenon that drives people to
    underperform in pressure situations served Ms. Beilock astonishingly
    well in the hiring process. She accepted seven of the job-interview
    invitations, and was subsequently rewarded with six job offers
    -- including plum appointments at Carnegie Mellon University and the
    Georgia Institute of Technology. That's because, for Ms. Beilock, 29,
    choking under pressure isn't just a nerve-racking fact of life -- it's
    a career-making research interest.

    From basketball stars on the free-throw line to golfers on the putting
    green to high-school students twiddling their No. 2 pencils in agony
    before the SAT, everyone shares a vulnerability to lousy performance
    when the stakes are high. Beginning with her research for her master's
    thesis in 1998, Ms. Beilock has quickly established herself as the
    go-to psychologist for this universal quirk. (Run a Google search for
    the term "choking under pressure," and the first hit leads to one of
    her papers.)

    "Basically, I study skilled performance," she says, "and I'm really
    interested in how skilled performance fails in a variety of
    situations." Over the past couple of years, it has become clear that
    the academic and grant-making worlds are interested too.

    With all those job offers on the table, Ms. Beilock did something
    unpredictable. She accepted an assistant professorship in the
    psychology department at Miami University of Ohio, where her husband,
    Allen R. McConnell, is a professor of social psychology. But now,
    after spending the better part of two years at Miami, she has accepted
    a job in the University of Chicago's psychology department, and has
    been busy setting up residence there over the summer.

    That's not all that's been keeping her occupied this season. Ms.
    Beilock spent much of August in Australia, attending a meeting of the
    International Society of Sport Psychology and accepting its Developing
    Scholar Award, a prize that is given out only once every four years.

    She has also had two research grant proposals accepted in recent
    months. One, which she will share with her husband, is a $199,000,
    three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study
    "stereotype threat," a phenomenon that causes a subject's awareness of
    his own social identity, and its various connotations, to affect his
    performance of a skill. The other is a $428,000, three-year grant from
    the Department of Education to study how different high-pressure
    standardized-testing environments affect students' scores.

    No Pressure

    Ms. Beilock's research aims to settle one of the age-old questions
    generated by flubbed free throws and math tests: Do we choke because
    we over-think our performance, or do we choke because we are too
    distracted to focus on it properly? The answer: both, depending on the

    When a professional basketball player steps up to the free-throw line,
    he probably doesn't shoot by thinking about a detailed series of
    steps. Instead, the skill is implanted so deeply in his memory that
    his motor system, in a sense, automatically remembers how to shoot for
    him. Up the stakes, however, and he might start paying too much
    attention to his actions. According to Ms. Beilock's findings, when
    someone under pressure starts analyzing all the component steps of a
    skill he normally executes like clockwork, he may perform as poorly as
    a novice.

    By contrast, the skills involved in cracking equations on a math test
    do require a lot of what psychologists call "working memory" -- the
    kind of step-by-step processing necessary to navigate a complex
    problem. Here's the surprising part: When taking a test, someone with
    lots of "working memory" is actually more prone to be handicapped by
    high stakes than someone with fewer cognitive resources. That's
    because the more expert thinker relies on very "cognitively intense"
    strategies, which can get sidetracked by distraction. Less intense
    thinkers might use mental shortcuts and rules of thumb to get by
    -- strategies that do not appear to be affected as much by pressure.

    That somewhat counterintuitive finding has tremendous bearing on the
    whole enterprise of standardized testing, the reigning
    aptitude-sorting mechanism in American education. "What pressure
    situations may do," Ms. Beilock says, "is serve to diminish the
    predictive differences we're looking for."

    The Golf Factor

    To study skilled performance and its hiccups, Ms. Beilock has used a
    number of experimental models, including math tests and dribbling
    soccer balls. But the one truly indispensable element in all of Ms.
    Beilock's labs over the years has been golf putting. "It's a very nice
    skill for a lot of reasons," she says. "One, you can put a putting
    green in a lab." (Ms. Beilock's own strongest sport -- lacrosse
    -- proved logistically ill-matched to the lab setting.) But that's not
    all putting has going for it. "It's got great motor components," Ms.
    Beilock says, "but it's also got this cognitive component as well."

    Though Ms. Beilock is not much of a golfer herself, her favored means
    of generating data has given her a level of exposure in the world of
    golf journalism that is probably rare among cognitive scientists. She
    has had no less than five articles about her appear in golf

    Golf fanatics are not the only people outside of academe who have
    picked up on Ms. Beilock's work. Because her research illuminates such
    a universal source of chagrin, it has garnered her coverage in The New
    York Times and interviews on National Public Radio.

    Navigating the waters between academe and the popular press is a
    famously perilous enterprise for young scholars. However, Ms.
    Beilock's colleagues and mentors say she possesses more than enough
    seriousness to back up her public appearances.

    "She has all the tools to do great science on hard topics," says
    Thomas H. Carr, Ms. Beilock's former dissertation adviser at Michigan
    State and now a frequent collaborator. What's more, he says, she
    combines those tools with "an intense ambition to make a difference in
    our understanding of the mind and to play that understanding out in
    real-world activities."

    Of all Ms. Beilock's research findings, one of her less-heralded
    discoveries is that it is surprisingly easy to design a pressure
    situation sufficient to make people susceptible to choking. "We'll
    offer people five bucks," she says, "and that's enough to make them
    feel like they're going to screw up." With much more than that on the
    line, Ms. Beilock has advanced her very brief career.

    But that's not to say she's always happy with her performance in the
    various high-pressure interview sessions, exams, and reviews that have
    marked her ascent. "I've always just felt that all of my abilities
    weren't really reflected in those short snapshots," she says. "I
    always think I could do better than I've done."

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