The New Neuroscience of Choking

The New Yorker:

Last Sunday, at the Memorial golf tournament in Dublin, Ohio, Rickie Fowler looked like the man to beat. He entered the tournament with momentum: Fowler had recently gained his first ever P.G.A. tour victory, and he had finished in the top ten in his last four starts. On the first hole of the final round, Fowler sank a fourteen-foot birdie putt, placing him within two shots of the lead.

And that’s when things fell apart. Fowler pulled a shot on the second hole and never recovered. On the next hole, he hit his approach into a greenside bunker and ended up three-putting for a double bogey. He finished with an eighty-four, his worst round on the tour by five shots. Although he began the day in third place, he finished in a tie for fifty-second, sixteen shots behind the winner, Tiger Woods.

In short, Fowler choked. Like LeBron James—who keeps on missing free throws when the game is on the line—he seems to have been undone by the pressure of the situation. And choking isn’t just a hazard for athletes: the condition also afflicts opera singers and actors, hedge-fund traders and chess grandmasters. All of sudden, just when these experts most need to perform, their expertise is lost. The grace of talent disappears.

As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his 2000 article on the psychology of choking, the phenomenon can seem like an amorphous category of failure. Nevertheless, choking is actually triggered by a specific mental mistake: thinking too much. The sequence of events typically goes like this: When people get anxious about performing, they naturally become particularly self-conscious; they begin scrutinizing actions that are best performed on autopilot. The expert golfer, for instance, begins contemplating the details of his swing, making sure that the elbows are tucked and his weight is properly shifted. This kind of deliberation can be lethal for a performer.

Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has documented the choking process in her lab. She uses putting on the golf green as her experimental paradigm. Not surprisingly, Beilock has shown that novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. By concentrating on their golf game, they can avoid beginner’s mistakes.

Read the whole story: The New Yorker

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