Highly Accomplished People More Prone To Failure Than Others When Under Stress

Highly Accomplished People More Prone To Failure Than Others When Under Stress

ScienceDaily (Feb. 20, 2007) — Talented
people often choke under pressure because the distraction caused by
stress consumes their working memory, a psychologist at the University
of Chicago has found.

Highly accomplished people tend to heavily rely on their abundant
supply of working memory and are therefore disadvantaged when
challenged to solve difficult problems, such as mathematical ones,
under pressure, according to research by Sian Beilock, Assistant
Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Her findings were
presented Saturday, Feb. 17 at the annual meeting of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science.


People with less adequate supplies of working memory learn other
ways of problem solving to compensate for their deficiencies and
although these alternative problem solving strategies are not highly
accurate, they are not impacted additionally by working under pressure,
the research found.

Beilock found that when put under pressure, the talented people with
larger amounts of working memory began using short-cuts to solve
problems, such as guessing and estimation, strategies similar to those
used by individuals with less adequate working memories. As a result of
taking those shortcuts, the accuracy of the talented people was

"These findings suggest that performance pressure harms higher
working memory individuals by consuming the cognitive resources that
they rely on for their superior performance — and as a result, higher
working memory individuals respond by switching to the less accurate
problem solving strategies normally used by lower working memory
students," Beilock said.

The results have implications for the evaluation of performance on
high stakes tests, such as those needed to advance in school and
college entrance examinations, she said.

Working memory is a short-term memory system that maintains a
limited amount of information in an active state. It functions by
providing information of immediate relevance while preventing
distractions and irrelevant thoughts from interfering with the task at

People with a high level of working memory depend on it heavily
during problem solving. "If you’ve got it, flaunt it" Beilock said.

However, that same advantage makes them particularly susceptible to the dangers of stress.

"In essence, feelings of pressure introduce an intrusion that eats
up available working memory for talented people," Beilock said.

In order to study the impact of stress on working memory, Beilock
and her colleagues tested roughly 100 college undergraduates. They gave
them tests to determine the strength of their working memory and then
subjected them to a series of complicated, unfamiliar mathematics

Students were given pressure by being told they would be paid for
their correct answers, but that they would only receive the money if a
partner, chosen randomly who they did not know, would also win. Then
they were told that their partner had solved the problem correctly,
thus increasing the pressure.

The study showed that as a result of the pressure, the performance
of students with strong working memory declined to the same level as
those with more limited working memory. Those with more limited working
memory performed as well under added pressure as they did without the


Adapted from materials provided by University of Chicago, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.


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