2011 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Sian Beilock

University of Chicago

Photo of Sian Beilock, 2011 Janet Taylor Spence Award RecipientWhat is the focus of your award-winning research?

The core of my research is based on the analysis of skilled performance in stressful academic situations. The types of stressors I explore range from (a) the chronic stress that a female math major might feel as a result of her awareness of the negative stereotype that “women’s math abilities are inferior to men’s” to (b) acute stressors that anyone might experience when they are in a high-stakes college admissions test to (c) trait anxieties about one’s performance in a particular domain (e.g., math anxiety). Using converging methodologies ranging from behavioral performance measures (e.g., accuracy and reaction time), to physiological measures of stress (e.g., salivary cortisol), to neuroimaging techniques (e.g., fMRI), I try to understand why poor performance occurs in stressful academic situations and to generate interventions to alleviate these unwanted performance decrements.

How did you develop an interest in this area?

I began my graduate work asking questions about how the performance of complex motor skills (e.g., a 5-foot golf putt) breakdown in pressure-filled situations and quickly became interested in skill success in failure in a variety of contexts – from the playing field to the classroom to the boardroom. Although there was a lot of research exploring the cognitive and neural correlates of skill success, there was less work addressing why performance failed in important situations. I was interested in understanding why this was the case and what could be done to alleviate less-than-optimal performances.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?

My graduate advisors, Tom Carr, Michigan State University, and Deb Feltz, Michigan State University, are two of the biggest influences in my academic career. They were both very supportive of tackling complex real world questions and taking on a line of research that did not sit squarely within one discipline of psychology, but instead straddled several different areas from cognitive psychology to education.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?

Getting a handle on why we perform poorly in pressure-filled situations is of theoretical interest in terms of, for example, understanding the interplay of emotion and cognitive control, but many of my research questions also have a broader appeal in that we have all had experiences where we have not performed up to our potential because of the perceived stress of the situation. Because of this, I have been fortunate enough to conduct rigorous laboratory experiments as well as publish a popular audience book on my work, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Being able to communicate psychological science to a general audience is something I am especially proud of.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?

APS is an organization that upholds the best science in our field while at the same time making our work accessible to a general audience. Given that both of these endeavors are something I strive to achieve, I am honored to receive this APS award.