Photo by  Kevin Ku  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom

— Søren Kierkegaard

Rewards are usually a motivator, but sometimes they are just too much. When enough rides on your good performance, you begin to feel the pressure. Professional athletes at the top of their game experience this during critical moments, and so do the rest of us when we realize that other people depend on our success, or when we step up to give an important presentation at work. Perhaps paradoxically, we are most likely to let ourselves down when we least want to. But at the same time, we need to keep attempting major challenges in our life, because without them we may be stuck at a dead end.

The main problem with pressure is the anxiety it causes us. Some level of anxiety is necessary when we face a challenge because it’s a sign that our efforts really matter. Sensible anxiety keeps us on our toes and gives us the impetus to prepare properly so that we do not mess up. If we don’t sufficiently care about an important event in our life, we are more vulnerable to failing simply because we did not prioritize it properly in our thoughts and preparations. But when anxiety is too high, it can become dysfunctional by pushing us into a shaky mindset as we approach the challenge itself. We need enough anxiety to care, but not so much that we choke.

There are two major competing theories about how pressure and anxiety actually choke us:

  1. Distraction: When we desperately want to succeed, it can distract us from performing at our best. The anxiety shifts our attention from typical performance rituals to thoughts of what it means to fail. We end up overthinking activities that normally come naturally and automatically to us. Imagine that I offered you $10,000 to type out a long sentence quickly on your computer without making an error. Although you probably do this successfully 9 out of 10 times in your daily life without even thinking about it, the added pressure of the money is likely to make you think too much about the exact locations of your fingers as you type, or the pain of losing $10,000. This unnatural focus to your attention means that you’re more likely to underperform by typing slower than usual or accidentally hitting the wrong button. You are thrown off your smooth expert mode.

  2. Over-motivation: When we are too emotionally active, we tap into our instinctive circuits that automatically pull us away from threats. If we are deeply anxious about losing or underperforming in some way, this fight-or-flight reaction is likely to overwhelm our practiced habits, reactions, and strategies, that usually guide us toward performing well.

If we could work out which theory explains our choking under pressure, it would put us in a better position to come up with a fix. Fortunately, each theory makes an opposing prediction about one crucial question: is there any difference between conscious explicit learning and incidental automatic learning? Let’s take the example of a boxer who needs to prepare for an upcoming fight with a new opponent. Would the boxer fare better under pressure if their trainer helped them analyze and memorize rules about the opponent’s behavior, or if the trainer immediately played out those rules in the practice ring and forced the boxer to react automatically and unknowingly to them?

The over-motivation theory would predict that both learning styles are equally vulnerable to choking under pressure, because our instinctive emotional reactions would overwhelm conscious and unconscious behavioral systems in the same way. The distraction theory, on the other hand, would predict a greater choking vulnerability for the boxer who prepares with the more conscious learning strategies, because the pressure will exclusively distract their conscious minds with worries about failure. The automatically learning boxer relies less on their conscious mind, so conscious distractions will interfere less with their performance.

Let’s get testing

Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.

— William Shakespeare

A group of researchers from across the US devised a clever experiment to directly test this question and find out which theory would come out on top. They randomly split 64 participants into two groups: an instructed learning group and an incidental learning group. Both groups sat in front of a computer and saw a row of four squares on the screen, one square for each finger of their hand excluding the thumb. Whenever one of the squares illuminated, participants had to press the button under their corresponding finger, and continue until a sequence of actions was completed. The sequences were made up of eight actions, and participants had to complete the sequences correctly under strict time pressure. Each participant learned a total of three different sequences, repeated 32–192 times, in a random order during training.

What exactly was the difference between the instructed learning and incidental learning groups? The instructed group saw a colored cue before each sequence began, which predicted the sequence they were about to practice — a yellow, blue, or green sequence. So these participants primarily used a conscious strategy in learning the sequences, thinking for example, “ok it’s blue, which means I will be pressing button 2, then 4, then 1…”. The incidental learning group had no such cue and were told that each sequence would be a completely random sequence. So they learned everything through a more automatic detection and reaction system, and couldn’t rely on their conscious predictions and rules.

After training, all participants continued with the same task they practiced. But now, they were playing for money. Before each sequence started, the computer told them how much money it was worth: $5, $10, or $20.

Over the course of training, both groups improved their speed in completing the sequences. The instructed learning group, who saw the predictive color cues for each sequence, showed a learning advantage over the incidental learning group. Their conscious predictions helped them progress more quickly in their training.

But the big question was whether the groups choked equally when faced with the high-stakes $20 sequences. The instructed learning group showed the characteristic pattern of choking under pressure. The added incentive of the $10 sequences improved their performance accuracy compared to the $5 sequences, but the $20 sequences created enough pressure to significantly harm their performance compared to the $10 sequences. So their peak performance was in the middle: enough incentive to care about getting the sequence correct, but not so much that it made them choke.

In contrast, the incidental learning successfully worked its magic in helping participants develop a resilience to the changing incentives. The levels of reward for each sequence made absolutely no difference to performance. The participants’ limited conscious knowledge about the sequences during training was actually a blessing in disguise. It prevented them from choking when it mattered. In fact, even if the predictive color cues were introduced just before playing for money, they still didn’t choke. As long as they learned and trained in implicit and automatic conditions, they were resistant to failing from too much pressure.

These results are a strong hint that choking is driven by our conscious knowledge and control processes in performing a task. Although conscious learning strategies help us to pick up and master a skill more quickly, they also introduce a cost when it comes to performance under pressure. We choke because those conscious strategies are interrupted by other conscious demands associated with a large emotional weight. In other words, the distraction theory explains the causes of our choking better than the over-motivation theory.

So what does it all mean?

What is the right attitude towards criticism?…To investigate candidly the charge; but not fussily, not very anxiously. On no account to retaliate by going to the other extreme — thinking too much.

— Virginia Woolf

The results have worked out in our favor. The distraction theory means that our implicit learning systems, which do not rely on conscious knowledge and awareness, are spared when the pressure mounts. Wherever possible, we can therefore adjust our training styles to fit. The pressures and anxieties caused by screaming fans and high stakes distract our conscious minds from applying the rules we learned back on the training ground. If we limit our awareness of these rules during training, there are fewer opportunities for our anxieties to interrupt our flow. Our implicit and automatic behavioral systems get on with the job they were trained to do, while our conscious minds are busy worrying about failure and judgment. To put it bluntly, there’s less interference because there’s less to interfere with, at least in our conscious performance.

So what can we do about the delicate balance of sufficient but not excessive anxiety for ideal performance? Can we lean away from choking territory? We have a couple of options: 1) Train ourselves in the most automatic and implicit ways we can when preparing for a major test, in order to build a resistance to pressure-related distractions, 2) Reframe our perceptions of the stakes, in order to reduce the pressure on our shoulders.

Questions such as “what’s the worst that can happen?” help to reframe our perceived stakes during a challenge, especially when we happen to be exaggerating the costs of failure in our anxious minds. Before giving important talks in my earlier career, I would get excessively anxious over vague thoughts such as “oh it would be just horrible if I embarrassed myself here” and “I’ll never forgive myself if I ruin this opportunity”. But as my experience evolved over time, with both fruitful and regretful highlights, new opportunities finally allowed me to ask “what is actually the worst that can happen here?”. It was then easy to see that my biggest fears were improbable and irrational nonsense.

Excessive anxiety, and unnatural attention to our conscious performance dynamics, are both choke-manufacturers. They derail us when we most need to remain focused. Introducing automaticity and reactivity to our training schedules, and rethinking the consequences that depend on our performance, can help with optimally utilizing each opportunity we find. Realizing that we won’t lose everything if we do a terrible job is freeing. It’s always worth appreciating the successes and pleasures that we have already achieved in our lives, because they are still likely to be there if we fail our next challenge. And besides, there’s always next time.