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Why people choke under pressure

Courtesy of flickr user rocky sun

The expression “choking under pressure” is used under circumstances when individuals perform poorer than they were expected to. The common understanding for why occurs is that there are big rewards for performing well but highly negative consequences for performing poorly (Beilock & Carr,2001). Even with this explanation one can still raise the question of why these performance decrements occur.

Although people can choke under pressure in a variety of situations, researchers for a long time have investigated people who get anxious about math and perform poorly at it despite being competent in other domains (Beilock, 2008). Research findings have suggested that the reason why math performance suffers under stress is because being stressful takes up resources in our working memory.

Working memory is a short term system that gets used for storing limited amount of information that is relevant to a specific task at hand (Miyake & Shah, 1999). The less working memory we have for a particular task, the more likely it is for our performance to suffer.

The idea that working memory is one of the reasons for why we choke under pressure was tested in a study where participants were told to solve modular arithmetic (MA) problems (Beilock, 2004). One group was told to work on MA problems involving large numbers, which meant that this was a high working memory demanding task, and the other group was told to work on MA problems with small numbers, a low working memory demanding task.

Some participants in the study were told to try their best (low stress situation), while others were told that they will receive a monetary reward if they perform well and will also be videotaped so that teachers and other students can watch their performance (high stress situation). People that were in the high stress situation performed poorer that people in low stress situation. But people who suffered from worst performance decrements were the ones that were working with MA problems involving large numbers. This result suggested that the more working memory gets taxed, the worse our performance becomes.

Studies have shown that there are also individual differences with respect to who is most likely to choke under pressure. The amount of working memory that an individual has can differ from person to person. The higher the working memory a person has, the better his/her performance will be in tasks involving problem solving and reasoning (Engle, 2002).

Beilock and Carr (2005) explored the issue of whether individual differences in working memory get impacted differently under stressful situations by asking participants with high working memory and low working memory to working on MA problems under high stress and low stress situations. Participants with high working memory scored higher on MA problems than participants with low working memory under low stress situations. But with high stress situations, the performance of low working memory participants did not change. It was the participants with high working memory whose performance suffered under high pressure.

The reason why the performance of people with low working memory did not suffer under stress while the performance of people with high working memory did was because of differences in problem solving styles. People with high working memory tend to use brute force in solving math problems. But people with low working memory rely upon complex shortcut strategies in solving problems. As a result, their performance in the study was spared.


Beilock, S.L. (2008). Math performance in stressful situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 339-343.

Beilock, S.L., & Carr, T.H. (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 701-725.

Beilock, S.L., & Carr, T.H. (2005). When high-powered people fail: Working memory and “choking under pressure” in math. Psychological Science, 16, 101-105.

Beilock, S.L., Kulp, C.A., Holt, L.E., & Carr, T.H. (2004). More on the fragility of performance: Choking under pressure in mathematical problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 584-600.

Engle, R.W. (2002). Working memory capacity as executive attention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 19-23.

Miyake, A., & Shah, P. (1999). Models of working memory: Mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control. New York: University Press.

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