This Mental Trick Can Help You Stay Calm Under Pressure

When the stakes are high, even the calmest, iciest-veined professionals can choke. Let’s never forget, for example, the Warriors’ collective meltdown against LeBron’s Cavs in the NBA finals, or the Falcons blowing a 25-point Super Bowl lead to the Patriots.

For fans, such epic fails can be incomprehensible, but science actually has a pretty good handle on how choking happens. Not only that, but a new study suggests a simple way that you can reduce your chances of blowing it in high-pressure situations.

First, some background on how scientists think about choking. Previous research has shown that monetary incentives can improve performance. That’s our intuitive understanding: People will work harder (and perform better) when there’s money on the line. And the more money at stake, the better they’ll perform.

But that’s only true to a certain point—and that’s where we get to “choking under pressure.” Because studies have also found that very high rewards actually have detrimental effects on performance; essentially, those outsize incentives negatively impact emotional and cognitive control, and even influence fine motor control and coordination.

A recent study examined this connection and found it was especially true for people who were most “loss averse.” Most people don’t want to lose what they already have—that’s being “loss averse”—but in experiments, participants who were particularly skittish about giving up their winnings tending to choke more often.

Researchers also found that as the stakes were raised, activity in a certain part of the participants’ brains, the ventral striatum, increased. Once the task began, though, ventral striatum activity dropped among the highly loss averse participants—there was also less communication between the ventral striatum and areas of the brain that control motor function. As that communication dropped, performance suffered and choking became more common.

All of which suggests a potent connection between psychological state and physical performance. And which brings us, finally, to the newest research. In the latest study, researchers took all of that accumulated knowledge about choking and asked what would happen if people mentally reframed their incentives.

The trick goes something like this: Instead of playing to win money, participants were asked to pretend they were playing not to lose money they’d already won. This wasn’t strictly true, but they found it dramatically reduced choking. Essentially, the players had tricked their brains into staying more calm under pressure. (Researchers also found less perspiration on the players’ fingers, another sign that they’d reduced their stress.)

It’s not clear yet how well this technique might transfer to other situations, but the results suggest suggest a new way to tackle the problem of choking. Next time you find yourself in a high-stakes situation, instead of trying to distract yourself or visualize yourself winning, just pretend you’ve already won.

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