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Even the most skilled athletes, musicians, and performers can make mistakes on relatively simple tasks, so what’s happening in our brains when we choke, and is there something we can do to overcome these moments?

Hosted by: Hank Green
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This episode of SciShow Psych is supported by NordVPN.

Go to nordVPN.com/Psych—that’s P, S, Y, C, H—to learn more about virtual private networks and internet security. [INTRO ♪]. Imagine, if you will, that you have been training as a world-class figure skater—long hours, early mornings, years of hard work.

And you’ve finally gotten to the Olympic qualifiers—I know, it’s a stretch. Yet somehow, despite all your practice and skill, a minute into your routine you fall flat on your butt. We’ve all watched athletes considered the best of the best take the field with everything on the line only to totally blow it.

When someone who’s otherwise really skilled makes a dumb mistake under pressure, it’s popularly known as “choking.” And although every single one of those people wishes they could take that moment back, it’s hard to give a simple answer for how to not choke under pressure. There are lots of reasons it can happen, and they all require different responses. People tend to choke in high pressure situations—like the final dive at the Olympics or the last game of the world series.

But athletes aren’t the only people who can experience this phenomenon. Standardized tests like the SAT, for example, could cause anyone to choke. Or something like a video game, if the stakes are high enough.

In a study published in 2012, researchers rewarded around 20 participants for accuracy in a game where they had to move their hand to control a ball and spring on a screen. For the most part, getting paid more meant they did better. But, when they switched the game to a harder mode with a really big reward—like $100 for a completed move—they were suddenly less likely to get it right.

Basically, it was like they could use the rewards to motivate people to improve, but beyond a certain point, the pressure was just too much. But it's not just the situation—some people are more likely to choke, too. It seems that people who are more anxious about their performance are more likely to mess up, at least when it comes to athletics.

But you might also be more likely to blow it on tough tasks if you have higher working memory—that is, short term memory you might use to, say, hold a phone number in your head before you dial. In a 2006 study, 67 participants were given a memory test and then given a bunch of puzzles. Half of them were told their accuracy was predictive of their general academic success, to ramp up that pressure.

The people with higher working memory were much more likely to freeze up on the harder puzzles, and they also reported feeling more anxiety during the process. To help understand why people choke, though, it helps to observe it directly. Which is exactly what some researchers did in a 2015 study.

They gave 20 participants some practice on a game resembling Snake—that classic arcade game where you chase a dot around—before getting into an MRI to play while their brains were scanned. They found that offering big rewards to get a move right was more likely to induce choking—which supports this idea that it’s being distracted by high pressure that causes it. They also found that if someone was about to choke, a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex became more active.

This is the region that's associated with inhibiting a behavior, self-control, or thinking about the future. It’s like the part of your brain that starts screaming “Don’t mess up!” whenever anything important is on the line. But, if people had this brain region become active with the motor cortex that controls voluntary movement—like, if these two regions became active in time with each other, as though they were connected—those people were less likely to choke.

This makes it seem like the don't-make-a-mistake part of the brain can actually help influence the motor cortex to get it right, making failure less likely. But other times, it's more like a heckler on the sidelines. And other studies have shed some light on why these two seemingly opposite effects can coexist—which could help people who are prone to choking under pressure.

If you're already really good at what you're doing—which is probably the case if you're, say, an NBA player in the finals—it may help to find something else to distract you. Something other than the pressure. In research published in 2002, 21 golfers were asked to make a series of putts while either focusing on their swing and follow through, or while splitting their attention between the putt and listening for a tone.

They found that splitting the attention really screwed up those with the least experience. But the most experienced golfers did much better when they were distracted. Researchers think this has to do with the fact that experts have implicit knowledge to turn to when they're distracted—meaning, basically, knowledge you don't have to think about.

And when they tried the experiment again with 20 soccer players, they tested this idea by having everyone try a round with their non-dominant foot. This made the experts look much more like novices—they didn't have the implicit knowledge to fall back on when they were distracted, and they made more mistakes. Other studies have found that just telling people to hurry up can help, if those people had implicit knowledge to fall back on, because they could stop overthinking and just do it.

But other studies haven’t found any benefit from distraction. So we don’t fully understand how to prevent choking under pressure. But it seems like a little healthy distraction might help—and it might help more the more experienced you are!

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