If you are like me, you probably have “choked” before during a difficult final exam, even when you have studied well before. Even the thought of doing a 20-minute project presentation gives you anxiety because you are afraid that you’ll mess up and not get that grade that you wanted. Luckily, there has been new research published in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal about a new technique that decreases the chances of choking during a high-stakes task. Simon Dunne and his colleagues figured out that by changing the way we think about what is at stake, it could influence the possibility of choking under high pressure (Simon, Vikram, Joseph & John, 2019). During the study, researchers would first identify the participants that were more “loss averse,” people that are more worried about not losing than winning, through a gambling game. After the gambling activity, participants were guided to complete a computer-based task that required fine motor skills and coordination. As researchers increased the monetary stakes, the participants would fall into higher pressure and had a higher chance to choke, especially the participants that were more loss averse.
The scientist also found a difference between the participants that cared more about not losing money and the participants that cared more about winning money when they observed the participants through an MRI. As the monetary stake increased, the activity level on the ventral striatum area intensely decreased and was not communicating to the motor control regions of the brain as well when compared to the less loss averse participants. Simon Dune and his colleagues predicted that if participants would pretend that they were performing to prevent losing their money instead of winning, then they would perform better at their task and would be less likely to choke. Surprisingly, participants that were identified to have a higher loss averse did significantly better when they had a “perform to keep the money” mindset than when they had a “preform to win money” mindset. This was also true to the participants that were less loss averse.
It is impressive how just by consciously changing the way you perceive what is at stake, it can make a difference in how well you might perform under pressure. It is also notable how Simon Dune and his colleagues were able to predict an observable behavior (task performance) by something intangible (reappraisal). We should even notice how neuroimaging techniques; such as the MRI that was used in the experiment, has helped cognitive psychologist identify where specific cognitive functions occur in the brain. Hopefully with further research involving students could give us a more precise answer if the “reappraisal technique” can apply to students like us.
These findings are all interesting, and although further research is needed to find out if it applies to students, it is understandable how the technique of reappraisal can be beneficial to a student. We can all agree that most of us would feel under pressure when a difficult final exam is responsible for a large portion of your grade. This means that your GPA is at stake and if you are like some of the people that are more worried about not failing, such as the participants that were more focused on not losing money, it could put you in a higher risk of choking. So, pretended that you already have the “A” on the exam and that you are just “performing to keep the “A.” Just remember that you came this far, and you are a winner. Keep in mind that you are only performing to keep that “A” and that you will do just fine.
Simon Dunne, Vikram S Chib, Joseph Berleant, John P O’Doherty; Reappraisal of incentives ameliorates choking under pressure and is correlated with changes in the neural representations of incentives, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 14, Issue 1, 4 January 2019, Pages 13–22, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsy108