Increases in Brain’s Motivation can result in Diminished Performance

Choking under pressure affects us all. Psychologists are very interested in this phenomenon, because choking sabotages performance not only in big sports contests but in the classroom and workplace as well. A study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science may offer some insight into why we crumble under pressure.

Psychologist and neuroscientist Dean Mobbs of University College London (and a large team of colleagues) decided to look inside the brains of people during competition, both when the stakes were low and when they were high. The idea was to catch people in the act of choking, and thus to identify the neural foundation of underperformance.

To do this, they had volunteers play a computerized maze game where they used an icon to chase another icon. Some were offered a tiny prize for winning (about $1), while others were offered a more substantial reward, about $10. They measured not only their successful captures, but also their near misses. They also used a brain scanner to see which neuron clusters lit up during the act of choking.

The results were clear. Players who performed poorly under pressure–and those who came close to winning but couldn’t close the deal–showed a spike in mid-brain activity. The mid-brain contains the basic reward pathways, and a neuronal spike is consistent with “overmotivation.” That is, an increase in the choking brain’s motivation to win a prize interfered with focused attention, resulting in diminished performance.

Even the larger $10 prize in this lab test is not a lot of money, so it’s remarkable that it was sufficient to undermine performance on a pretty simple computer game. Imagine how a real prize might affect performance in a complex game like golf.

It’s not implausible to think that, the closer you get to tasting victory, the more the mid-brain fires up, compromising concentration and focus enough to pull those putts just a fraction of an inch off target.

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