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The Psychology Of Choking Under Pressure

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We’ve all seen it, perhaps even experienced it. An elite athlete, in the final seconds of a thrilling game and down one score, taking the last slim chance at a win… and they bomb. It’s horrible, not even close. They choked. The game was too much for them, but why? What happens in our brains when we face these situations?

Research at Johns Hopkins University and the California Institute of Technology decided to find out. They had people sit in an MRI scanner while playing several games, during which they were playing with real money, and stood to win or lose $100. It’s well established that some people are more loss-averse than others, the prospect of losing something sends shivers down the spine of the highly loss-averse, while others don’t seem to be bothered. But if you expected to see the loss-averse individuals choke, you’d be wrong:

The results were unexpected. When presented with potential gains, highly loss-averse participants showed intensifying activity in their ventral striatums, and their game play improved. But when they had an opportunity to win $100, their performance declined precipitously. They choked. Their counterparts with low loss aversion — who ought to have been unfazed by the prospect of losing their money — did better in all of their games, except when they were faced with losing $100. Then they choked, consistently.

So, in a close game, who do you trust with the final play of the game? Turns out that question depends on whether you’re winning or losing. Those that are loss-averse shouldn’t be trusted to keep a win, while those unfazed by losing shouldn’t be given the final shot to take the lead.

People supposed to be strongly hostile to losing choked only when they might win; people supposed to be unfazed by losses fell apart only when faced with losing.

Of course this is new research and much more needs to be done on it. Nobody should change their game plan based on it, just give it to your best player and let them do their thing.

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About Sam Brinson Sam is a writer living in Uruguay. Sam follows the latest in aging break throughs.

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