What Science Tells Us about ‘Choking’ under Pressure

Photo of Sian Beilock presentingHow can you set yourself up for success when you’re trying to nail a business pitch, show off your skills on a job interview, or ace a presentation? Sometimes practice is not enough.

Humans have a natural tendency to choke under pressure because of the inner workings of the brain, but there are ways to succeed even when you’ve bombed in the past, according to cognitive scientist Sian L. Beilock, president of Barnard College in New York and a keynote speaker at the 2017 Booth Women Connect Conference. “In these stressful situations, what we can do is develop psychological techniques to bring our best foot forward,” she said. 

Here are four strategies to help you thrive under pressure.

Avoid hyper-focusing

During a high-stakes situation we often analyze every detail, which Beilock refers to as hyper-focusing. But this can slow us down or even harm our performance. “When you start thinking about the details that normally run on autopilot, you can mess up your own performance,” said Beilock, a former psychology professor at the University of Chicago and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To.

Rather than allowing yourself to obsess over every detail, focus on the big picture or your desired end goal to help you cruise through an important event. “When you do something to take your mind off what is going on, you are less likely to dwell on the details and more likely to succeed,” she told the audience.

Mimic the circumstances

Whether you’re giving a speech in front of a large audience or presenting at a board meeting, it’s important to practice in a similar setting, Beilock pointed out. “We often practice and prepare, but we don’t practice and prepare in the type of situations that we are going to perform under,” she said. Instead of preparing at home, rope in colleagues to hear a presentation well before your deadline or record your own performance, she suggested.

Walk away from the problem

Escape from your desk after hours of working on a project, or schedule time for some fresh air. Time away is crucial to thriving under pressure, she said. “When you feel like you’re under the gun, there’s a tendency to bang your head against the wall and push forward to get to the answer,” Beilock explained. “If you actually walk away and take a break, you are more [likely] to get to the answer.”

This happens in part because of the so-called “incubation effect,” which allows the brain to work out the problem subconsciously when away from the actual work, she added.

Try the little things


Journaling about stress or anything that’s bothering you has a calming effect on the brain, according to previous research about high school students preparing to take placement tests. “Getting your thoughts down on paper helps remove them from the mind,” Beilock said.

No matter what kind of stress you’re dealing with, Beilock pointed out that even quick attempts to calm the mind such as spending a few minutes meditating or walking through nature can help. “Little things can have a big effect,” she said.

Beilock spoke at Booth Women Connect Conference, organized by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The annual event brought together more than 1,000 professionals for an extraordinary day of bold ideas, spirited discussion, practical insights, and impactful networking. Join us for next year’s conference on October 12, 2018.


—By Alina Dizik

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