[Paleopsych] CHE: Making a Living on Choking Under Pressure
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Sat Sep 3 01:33:40 UTC 2005
Making a Living on Choking Under Pressure
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.2
By JOHN GRAVOIS
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
"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.
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
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
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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