Science reveals how not to choke under pressure

post by Matt_Simpson · 2010-12-09T16:46:28.536Z · score: 9 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 5 comments

Found via reddit, excerpt:

Choking happens when we let anxious thoughts distract us or when we start trying to consciously control motor skills best left on autopilot. ...

In her new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Success and Failure at Work and at Play, Beilock deconstructs high-stakes moments—the ones seen around the world and the ones only our mothers care about—to explore why we sometimes falter, and why other times we nail it. ...

What goes wrong in our brain when this happens? 
Working memory, housed in the prefrontal cortex, is what allows us to do calculations in our head and reason through a problem. Unfortunately, it’s a limited resource. If we’re doing an activity that requires a lot of cognitive horsepower, such as responding to an on-the-spot question, and at the same time we’re worrying about screwing up, then suddenly we don’t have the brainpower we need.

Also, once we feel stressed, we often try to control what we’re doing in order to ensure success. So if we’re doing a task that normally operates largely outside of conscious awareness, such as an easy golf swing, what screws us up is the impulse to think about and control our actions. Suddenly we’re too attentive to what we’re doing, and all the training that has improved our motor skills is for naught, since our conscious attention is essentially hijacking motor memory. ...

How can I prevent myself from overthinking? 
You might think that writing about your worries would just make them more salient. But there is work in clinical psychology showing that writing helps limit ruminative thoughts—those negative thoughts that are very hard to shake and that seem to grow the more you dwell on them. The idea is that you cognitively outsource your worries to the page. Writing about worries for 10 minutes right before taking a standardized test is really beneficial.

5 comments

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comment by James_Miller · 2010-12-09T17:25:20.097Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

After I fell down a set of stairs I became fearful of falling down again, so I carefully watched the stairs every time I went down them. I then kept becoming more unbalanced and so kept taking more caution when going down stairs. I got scared for my health. But then I read that what happened to me is commonplace among senior citizens and is caused by the fact that a lifetime of walking without looking down makes our brains better at balancing when we don't look down. I had fallen into a negative feedback loop. I stopped looking down and haven't had trouble since.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2010-12-11T15:36:06.154Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[citation needed] - thanks!

Was starting to get a bit worried there since I do watch when I'm taking the stairs... but then again I'm probably getting enough balance practice given the speed at which I'm taking them...

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-10T04:01:37.926Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, absolutely. When I was learning to walk again after my stroke, it was very easy for me to choke... not least of which because my working memory and general executive functioning was seriously impaired. I distinctly remember on one occasion missing the floor with my foot -- that is, I tried to take a step, and my right foot went "swish" over the floor without touching it. I learned a bunch of tricks for subverting that, all of which essentially boiled down to "stop thinking so much and just walk!"

comment by shokwave · 2010-12-11T15:12:42.993Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In general, knowing that your brain can recognise cognitive outsourcing is really useful. When a problem has me stumped, I refuse to write it down and sometimes even refuse to share the problem until I've had some downtime, such as sleep. I do this because I know that if I keep the idea in my head, I'll keep churning on it, and dreaming/downtime has a non-zero chance of solving the problem for me.

But I wasn't aware that 'choking' on a routine task is related to cognitive ... micromanaging?

comment by Matt_Simpson · 2010-12-12T23:04:52.674Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's the most surprising yet in hindsight obvious thing about the article to me. I had thought of the other hypothesis - that automatic cognitive operations are just better at doing things than conscious control - because I felt it (e.g., talking to girls. This may be one of the hardest things about PUA, and it's related to getting into the optimal "state" as PUA's call it). But cognitive resources are limited? First, duh! Why didn't I think of that on my own? Second, it helps explain other types of choking that the first hypothesis seems less plausible for. I'm thinking about reading the book over christmas break.