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The science of performing – or not – under pressure


Some of us are cool under pressure; most of us are not. Hence the term choking, aka screwing up when the stakes are high, aka snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Yesterday, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, PhD, published some brilliant insight into the science of performing (or not) under pressure. His case study: The Roy Munson of baseball, Alex Rodriguez, who went on a 12-day, 17-consecutive-at-bat hitless streak - all in pursuit of his 600th career home run (which he finally got on Wednesday).

Gilbert writes:

One of the ironies of human psychology is that desperately wanting something can make attaining that thing all the more difficult. When stakes go up, performance often goes down. In one study, subjects practiced sinking a putt and got better as they went along - better, that is, until the experimenter offered them a cash reward for their next shot, at which point their performance took a nosedive.

This is because we pay close attention to what we’re doing when what we’re doing matters, and though close attention is helpful when our task is novel or complex, it is positively destructive when our task is simple and well practiced. Golfers in another study were told either to take their time and think about their stroke or to step up and swing as quickly as possible. Although novice golfers did better when they took their time, expert golfers did worse.

The lesson from the laboratory is clear: thinking about tasks that don’t require thought isn’t just pointless, it’s debilitating...

Poor A-Rod. He might have done better in a more teamy team sport. As my colleague Michelle Brandt reported recently, the structure of baseball places unique pressure on individual players, and that pressure can have serious mental-health consequences.

Photo by Keith Allison

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