A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Guest Host: Katty Kay
A psychologist and expert on brain science talks about why we “choke” when stressed. She paints a portrait of how people handle — successfully or unsuccessfully — life’s daily pressures.
- Sian Beilock professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of BBC World News America sitting in for Diane Rehm. President Obama's unflappability earned him the nickname, No Drama Obama on the campaign trail. The commander-in-chief is under the gun each time he makes a speech, yet he comes off as cool and comfortable in the spotlight. In a new book, brain science expert Sian Beilock explains how experience, practice and brain development interact to create those abilities and how our emotions can make us both smarter and dumber. It's titled "Choke" and Sian Beilock joins me now in the studio. Sian, thank you so much for coming in.
MS. SIAN BEILOCKThank you for having me.
KAYThe number here is 1-800-433-8850, our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to get your questions and comments. We can also get a tweet from you or join us on Facebook during the course of the show. We'll be opening the mics in just a moment. First of all, "Choke." What exactly does it mean?
BEILOCKYou know, we all throw the term around and I think we've heard it before, whether we're talking about the yips in golf or bricking to shoot a free throw or just really bombing a test, but choking isn't just poor performance, it's a worse performance than you're capable of because of the perceived stress of a situation. So we all have performance ups and downs, but this is when you perform below your ability, below what you know, because you're worried about the consequences of your performance.
KAYOkay. So what's actually going on in our brains when we choke?
BEILOCKSo a variety of brain and body reactions happen when we're under pressure. Oftentimes, our heart starts to race and also, our minds race often with worries. We're worried about the outcome, we're worried about what other people will think of us, we're worried, maybe, about what we'll think about ourselves. But it's not just that we're worried, we also often try and control what we're doing in order to ensure a positive outcome, so if we're trying to hit that elusive 4 foot putt to win the tournament, we start thinking really hard about every aspect of what we're doing and sometimes that sort of control can actually backfire.
KAYYou call it paralysis by analysis?
BEILOCKYeah, so the idea is that when you're performing a skill that's highly practiced, something that runs mostly on autopilot, it's better to often just let that skill go. Your body knows what to do. And when your prefrontal cortex, the forward part of your brain involved in thinking and reasoning, which houses your cognitive horsepower, I talk about it as working memory, gets too involved, you can actually disrupt or flub your performance. So sometimes, it's better just to go with the flow in those highly practiced sorts of tasks.
KAYSian, can I just backtrack a little bit? On those moments when we do kind of choke and you -- we've all felt them, you know, oh, my goodness, that kind of moment where you know you have to do something. You start worrying that you're not going to be able to do it. It's almost like you feel something in your body. It was a physical response. When I get nervous like that, it's, you know, you feel slightly flushed or your heart starts racing further. Is it just adrenalin? Is it a surge of adrenalin through our body or is there something happening in our brains? What is it that's going on?
BEILOCKYes, so you have these bodily reactions, but oftentimes, it's how you interpret those reactions that really predict whether you're going to sail under the pressure, whether you're gonna to fail. So if you interpret this adrenalin rush as sort of a call to arms, it's motivating you, then you may not be worried about the outcome and you might perform really well. But when you start interpreting these reactions as, oh, no, I'm really in a sticky situation here, these worries in itself start creating a cascade of brain sort of reactions that can be really detrimental. So in short, choking occurs when the prefrontal cortex, this forward part of your brain, malfunctions.
BEILOCKIt can cause you to not have enough attention to devote to what you're doing. So if you're doing a demanding academic task or responding to a boss on the fly where you have to do a lot of thinking and reasoning, the worries that occur, that's zapped this prefrontal cortex horsepower, can be really detrimental.
KAYYou use very vivid descriptions and great examples of things we all know about and one of the ones that I enjoyed most was, of course, that 2002 Olympics and the experience of Michelle Kwan...
KAY...at the Olympics and how she was the hot favorite to take the gold in ice skating and, of course, we all know what happened.
BEILOCKRight, yeah, she just wasn't able to pull out the gold when the pressure was on. Michelle's performed at a high level in all sorts of situations and world championships, but the Olympics, which I think is arguably the highest sort of stage for a figure skater, she just was never able to pull out that elusive gold. And I think that's a nice example of choking where you know someone has the ability to succeed and they're just not able to perform up to their potential.
KAYSo she nailed the jump on hundreds of practices beforehand, but on that instant, she got out onto the ice, she tried the jump and she fell.
BEILOCKYeah, she just really, you could see this sort of breakdown in her ability to perform up to her potential.
KAYOkay and then there's Sarah Hughes, who had none of the pressure because the spotlight wasn't on her. She wasn't expected -- she was -- nobody ever really heard of Sarah Hughes.
BEILOCKYeah, and you hear when she talks about this -- and this is common when, I think, athletes reflect on their really stellar performances. She talks about just going out and skating, not really thinking too much about what she was doing, just going out there and being in the moment. So she's sort of devoid of all the worries and expectations that you hear reflected in people like Michelle Kwan when they talk about these sorts of situations.
KAYHow debilitating can choking be?
BEILOCKWell, I think it can be the difference between whether someone moves up in a particular activity or leaves a sport or activity completely. In our society, we're often judged on these one snippets of performance, whether it's sitting for the SAT, an interview situation or any sort of sporting event. And having a reputation as not being able to perform up to your potential can be enough to get people to decide they don’t want to move on in a particular way.
KAYAnd it becomes psychological in anticipation, doesn't it? I mean, you get to the stage where if you have choked once or twice, you've failed to make that throw once or twice, you get to the stage where you can't even bring yourself to do it anymore because your fear stops you from even going there.
BEILOCKYeah, I mean, oftentimes, people disengage from activities completely, so in the book, I talk about all different sorts of stressful situations. Certainly we can think about the Olympics or sitting for a test is one, but it turns out that merely just being aware of stereotype, about how you as a member of a particular group should perform. So a woman taking a math test, for example, who's aware of stereotypes about gender and math ability, these stereotypes and this awareness can lead you to perform poorly just because you're aware that some people think that women are bad at math. And one consequence of this is that women decide to disengage from math and science domains completely. They decide they don't want to go into these areas as a way to save face in a way, so this disengagement issue becomes a real problem.
KAYSo it becomes a vicious circle?
BEILOCKSure. It's -- you can think of it as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a way -- you're worried about confirming these differences and then you do. And as a way to deal with that, you just decide you don't -- you're not interested in this activity anymore to begin with.
KAYOkay, Sian, you talk in the book about psychologists being guilty of me-search rather than research, do I have to ask you, what is it that got you interested in this particular area?
BEILOCKRight, everyone asks me if I do me-search and...
KAYIs this really the secret that you've told?
BEILOCKI think there is an element of me-search in what I do. I've always been someone who is interested in performing at a high level in whatever I'm doing, whether it's academics or athletics. And I've always been struck by the fact that very subtle influences of the situation, whether someone's watching you or whether you really want to succeed, can have a huge effect on whether you're able to show what you know.
BEILOCKSo studying for college entrance exams, I always did better on the practice test than I did when I sat for the big testing day. And you see these sorts of effects in sports as well and I wondered what it was that made some people succeed in these sorts of situations and some people just not be able to pull out their best when the stakes were high.
KAYYou talk about a friend that you had at college, though, who didn't overwork anything or over think anything and yet always performed really well.
BEILOCKRight, yeah, so there are definitely individual differences in how likely someone is to choke under pressure, for example, but it's -- there are a lot of techniques and activities that people can do to change how they are in these sorts of high pressure situations, so I think that some people might have a propensity to perform better or worse, to be a clutch versus a choke player.
BEILOCKBut the book and the research that I talk about really gets at the idea that no matter what your past experience is or what your propensity is, there are things we can do now that we know from the science behind why people choke. Now that we know what goes on in the brain and body to change your performance and really pull your best out under stress.
KAYIs this really multidisciplinary? I mean, during the course of the conversation, we've talked about SATs, we've talked about job interviews, we've talked about ice skating. Is choking something that is as broad as that? That anybody in almost any field can come across, even when it's not necessarily the most elite of performances or the most elite of levels that we're talking about.
BEILOCKYeah, I mean, we often talk about these quintessential situations like the Olympics or interviewing for a job or sitting for a test is where choking occurs, but it turns out that we perform under pressure every day in a variety of situations. This can be the two minutes we find ourselves with in the elevator with our boss trying to impress him or her or the heated argument we get in with our spouse where we just go blank. It can be a student who has to solve a problem at the board in front of the entire class or a parent who has to stand up at a PTA meeting and voice his or her opinion while everyone looks on. So these are all high stress situations that we encounter and it turns out that whatever we're doing and whether we're holding a pencil or a golf club in our hands, we have a lot of the same brain and body reactions.
BEILOCKOur mind starts to race with worries and if we're doing a task that requires a lot of working memory, which is essentially your mental scratch pad that allows you to work with your information held in consciousness for doing this sort of task, taking a test, reasoning on the spot with a client. The worries that ensue really co-op this working memory because it is limited. We only have so much and we perform poorly, but it's not just the worries. That's not the end of it. We also often try to control what we're doing in order to ensure success and in this case, if you're doing a test that runs more on autopilot, an activity that should just be left to go and on the flow, like taking a golf putt or even rehearsing or performing a well-practiced speech.
BEILOCKAnd it's not the worries so much that get you, it's this attempt to control these performances that should just be left outside conscious awareness. So lots of things happen, but it depends on who you are and what sort of activity you're doing that will dictate how you perform poorly.
KAYAnd that is the key, of course. We're gonna to discuss that and more just after this short break. The book is "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To." The author is Sian Beilock, she joins me in the studio here. The number is 1-800-433-8850, the e-mail address is email@example.com. You can send us a tweet, find us on Facebook. We'll be opening the mics in just a moment and taking your calls. Stay listening.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined in the studio by Sian Beilock. Her new book is "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To." The phone number here is 1-800-433-8850, send us an email as well, firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be opening the phones in just a minute, but I have to read you this e-mail that was just handed to me in the break that made me laugh. It's from Sophia. "I usually get very nervous before public speaking, job interviews and meetings with new people. What does it mean if I'm not nervous before one of these events? This rarely happens, but almost scares me more than being nervous when it does." Things like fear, gets nervous every possible opportunity.
BEILOCK(laugh) I think Sophia's hitting on an important point here, that there is a certain level of stress or motivation that's important for us to succeed. If we didn't have any desire to perform at a high level, we wouldn't sort of bring our best to the table, but one important point to note here is that the key is to really be accustomed to dealing with whatever sort of reaction that you might have so that you're ready in the high-stakes situation for whatever comes your way. And that really gets at how you're practicing for these sorts of important pressure-filled situations. We often spend a lot of time, say, studying for a test, just going over our notes, but we rarely sit there and actually take a practice test, like, that's very similar to what we're going to find in the high-stress situation.
KAYWith the same sort of environment if possible.
BEILOCKRight. And you see this at least in academics, that students and parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on test prep courses, where the goal is to get the secrets of the test, but one of the main reasons I suspect that those courses up the scores of some students is because every week, they sit and take practice tests in essentially the same environment they're going to face on testing day.
KAYSo when they go into testing day and they're in the real test, it feels familiar.
BEILOCKIt feels familiar and...
KAYWhich means there's less of an adrenaline surge or there's less of an anxiety surge?
BEILOCKRight. There's less of a negative reaction to the stressful situation. People are prepared, they're practiced to deal with whatever comes their way. In the book, I talk about a lot of research that suggests that you don't have to practice under the exact high-stake situations you're going to face in competition or an interview or even a test. It's hard to mimic those in reality. Just getting a little bit of pressure in these practice situations can actually be enough to get people accustomed to performing well when the stakes are high.
KAYRight. 'Cause, I mean, it's impossible to replicate the finals of Wimbledon...
KAY...or, you know, the 2002 Olympic ice skating championships.
KAYI mean, these things -- those are areas where the level of stress is just presumably some -- it's so stratospheric, that you can't realistically have that in practice sessions, can you?
BEILOCKRight. And that's what's amazing about us as performers and as human beings in general, that we're able to adapt, so if we get used to performing under a mild level of stress, we're ready when those real pressures come along. The FBI uses this in training people to shoot in particular situations. It's hard to mimic the exact sort of stress you're gonna to feel when you're actually getting shot at with real bullets, but they've -- there's research showing that training these cadets under sort of quasi-stressful situations is enough to get them to perform at a high level when the real pressure is there.
KAYSian, you talk in the book about the Obama effect and of course we have a president who everybody says seems to be very cool and doesn't seem to be somebody who chokes. I've got an e-mail here from Marilyn in Arvada, Colo. who writes to us, "President Obama is clearly rational and cool under fire. At the same time, he does not seem well able to cope with irrational hyperbolic and even hysterical attacks. Because Obama does not seem to respond to such extreme emotion, he seems not to understand how to defuse it. Why do you think this is?"
BEILOCKI mean, that's an interesting question. I think it's well known that Obama spends a lot of time practicing in the delivery of his speeches and probably, I imagine, dealing with questions and they...
KAYSo trying again to recreate the situations...
KAY...he's going to find himself in.
BEILOCKRight. But if he -- if they're not recreating the exact sorts of attacks he's getting, then he may not be as accustomed to dealing with some of the issues that come his way. But I imagine his handlers are working hard to make that the case.
KAYSo what is the Obama effect that you noticed?
BEILOCKSo in the book, as I mentioned before, there's -- I talk about lots of types of pressure situations. And one situation that has received a lot of attention as of late, is this notion that -- a phenomenon people talk about as stereotype threat. And it's this idea that just being aware of a stereotype about your racial group. So for example, African Americans who are aware of stereotypes about race and intelligence or I mention women and math or even in athletic situations. White guys are aware of stereotypes, such as white guys can't jump. Being aware of those stereotypes are enough to make people perform poorly. So when a woman checks off her gender before she takes an SAT, she does worse than if she didn't. If an African American checks off his or her race before they take a test that's deemed as an intelligence test, they perform worse than if they hadn't checked that off.
KAYBecause you mean they're being reminded...
KAY... of some sort of a stereotype.
BEILOCKEssentially, just being aware. So there's work showing that high-achieving Stanford African American and Caucasian students perform similarly on SAT or GRE-type tests when they're not reminded of these stereotypes beforehand. But just checking off your race leads to some of the racial achievement gaps that we've seen. And so the Obama effect is a phenomenon that I talk about in the book, in which immediately after the election, there was a closing in that racial achievement gap such that it seemed that African Americans who were given this prominent role model that defies racial stereotypes about intelligence were performing up to their potential. And you see this in all sorts of situations. So women who are around highly successful female professors, for example, don't show some of the same drops in performance when they're reminded of gender stereotypes because they have examples of someone defying it right there.
KAYBut do women and men more broadly perform differently under pressure?
BEILOCKThat's a really interesting question and I think a controversial one in -- to some extent. You know, my take on this is that the gender differences come more from the types of pressures that women and men are likely to feel than any sort of inherent difference in how they're performing, so women in these testing situations are often under these sorts of stereotypes or aware of them and it can be really detrimental to their performance. And it turns out that women and men sometimes take different routes, for example, in mathematics to solve problems, possibly because of how they've been socialized.
BEILOCKThere's work showing that part of the gender gap that often shows up on tests like the SAT can be explained by use of high school students' problem-solving strategies. So it turns out that high-achieving high school girls tend to use the strategies for solving math problems that they were taught in school, the sort of step-by-step algorithms to go through these problems, whereas the equivalent boys tend to be more ready, willing and able to use shortcuts to get through the problems. And you can imagine how on timed assessment tests working backwards from the answer could be really beneficial. It could leave -- let you circumvent certain steps that might be prone to mistakes and actually just give you more time to perform the test at hand. And so it's not necessarily that men and women have different abilities here, it's just the tendency to use these different strategies can lead to really different types of performance under pressure.
BEILOCKAnd one idea is that men end up having these strategies modeled for them in diverse situations, whether it's working with uncles or fathers, using different sorts of strategies than taught in school to figure out about how measuring things or cutting up, dissecting things and women just may be not exposed to the same sort of diversity of strategies that allow them the confidence or just the ability to employ them as flexibly under those high-stakes situations.
KAYAbsolutely fascinating. We're going to take calls now. So Sian, we will go to Denise who is calling us from Bethesda, Md. Denise, you'll join "The Diane Rehm Show."
DENISEHi. Good morning.
DENISEI wanted to ask your guest, the author, about a situation. My daughter has a -- she's been studying classical guitar for many, many years. And any time she's in a performance environment, especially a solo performance environment and it's either in a competition or just at a recital, even though she's spent hours and hours and hours practicing and she can play the pieces perfectly from memory in a practice environment, when she gets, you know, before judges or before an audience, she chokes. And it's just been devastating for her and her -- shattered her confidence in her ability to, you know, do this. And I've taken her to a psychologist to see if there's anything they can do and she's done a little bit with guided imagery, but not very much. And I'm wondering if you have an opinion on that or are there any -- sort of how to find a qualified coach to help her overcome this, you know, this mental block that she seems to get when she's in a performance situation or if there are tried and true techniques in your book, you know, as well. So I -- we're just trying to solve this problem for her so she can have the confidence that she knows that she can play.
DENISEAnd play in a public way without embarrassing herself.
KAYDenise, you're describing exactly what Sian talks about in the book.
BEILOCKYeah, I think the situation you talk about is very common and it's not uncommon for me to get calls from parents essentially describing what you're talking about, whether it's in music or athletics or in some other performance domain. I talk about a number of techniques in the book that may be beneficial to your daughter to get ready for those sorts of situations. You know, even though -- it struck me what you said, even though -- you talk about her practicing, I wonder how she's practicing, whether she's really able to mimic, in some sense, the types of stress she feels in the solo situations.
KAYSo maybe what we were talking about earlier about trying to recreate some of the pressure of the performance...
KAY...venue in the practice venue.
BEILOCKRight. Does she play for you, her parents before or maybe friends or even a neighbor, someone...
KAYMaybe get a group of people...
KAY...into the room when she's practicing just before a big event.
BEILOCKYeah, just to get her used to some of the types of feelings she might have in that high-stress situation. Of course, there's a lot of techniques I talk about in the book that she can use in her performance and before her performance, but I think one of -- a big thing is this notion of really closing the gap, I call it, between training and competition. Performing a solo in front of an audience is not the same activity as performing that solo in your bedroom when no one's watching. And once you realize that it changes how you practice in a way that I think will get you better prepared for that sort of situation.
KAYThat makes perfect sense. David in Indianapolis, Ind. David, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVIDYes, hi. How are you?
KAYGood, thank you. You have a question for Sian.
DAVIDYes, I do. Actually, two questions, they're very brief and I'll take my answer off the air. But the first question is, do you tend to think that the causes for this choking phenomenon, I guess, is rooted more in the chemical -- physical chemical imbalance or in a -- in just a psychological reaction to the differing environment, the addition of that stress like the last caller was talking about being in performance? And the second question is, have you done -- have you looked into, or is there research on, differences in how -- between the racial or ethnic groups as to how they perform? I'm reminded particularly of a stereotype that I heard a lot growing up myself about how -- forgive me for the non-PC comment, but...
KAYDavid, David, your phone line is not very good, so I'm going to put those two questions to Sian in the studio because we can't hear you terribly well. Sian, the first question was, is it more physical or psychological and the second was, do some groups suffer more from choking than others?
BEILOCKRight. So there are both brain and body reactions to these high-stress situations. Interestingly, we've done work and others that I talk about in the book showing a lot of it is how you interpret maybe a physical reaction, so we have work showing that people who are highly anxious about doing math, someone who doesn't like to calculate the bill at a restaurant while their friends look on or even take a math textbook, that sort of sends them into a panic, these people often perform below their potential in math situations, maybe a math class or a math test. Not necessarily because they have less math knowledge, but the worries prevent them from using all their brain power to show what they know. And we've taken measures of cortisol, which is sort of the stress hormone, if you will, and we've shown that people lower and higher in math anxiety both have similar cortisol reactions in a math testing situation, but it's only those people who really are from the outset worried about math that show a negative performance because of it and it's really has a lot to do with how you're interpreting what your body is doing.
KAYSo it's psychological and physical.
BEILOCKIt's both, but a big part of this is how you interpret the situation.
KAYAnd are some groups more prone to this than others?
BEILOCKYou know, I think some...
KAYWe talked about women.
BEILOCKYeah, I think some groups are more prone to be in situations that may be highly stressful, so you can imagine a minority student walking around in the classroom always with the weight pressure of stereotypes on them that suggest that they might not be able to perform as well as others in academics. So it's not necessarily that they react differently, it's just that they're more likely to be in these stressful situations to begin with.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850 or send us an e-mail to email@example.com. We have an e-mail here from Ryan in Gainesville, Fla. who asks, "I'm curious. Since choking is associated with an overactive prefrontal cortex, is it a uniquely human experience?" (laugh)
BEILOCK(laugh) That's a really interesting question.
KAYDo animals suffer from the same choking?
KAYI've had conversations with people who study, for example, Rhesus Macaques...
BEILOCK...monkeys or other sorts of nonhuman primates, for example, about whether or not these sorts of effects happen. I don't know the answer to that question. I will say that there is a likely and evolutionary explanation for why we might perform poorly in stressful situations.
KAYI mean, is some of it that what our body is telling us is that we shouldn't be going into that stressful situation? That actually, it's, you know, a fight or flight and that sometimes we'd be better off flying.
BEILOCKWell, one way to think about an overactive prefrontal cortex is it's, in a sense, a call to vigilance, right? And you could imagine how vigilance would be very beneficial if you're trying to escape from a lion or a tiger, right? But essentially, when you become more vigilant in these sorts of situations, it often means you have less brain power to devote to thinking and reasoning tasks. And there's actually research I talk about in the book suggesting that areas of the brain involved in vigilance become more active when people are in these stressful situations, which leaves less resources for areas of the brain, for example, involved in thinking and reasoning tasks and also involved in just letting our performance run off as it should.
KAYBut sometimes you also say we should take the path of flight.
BEILOCKStepping away from the competition (laugh) in the path of flight, I don't know. I think that there are ways such that we don't have to flee from these high-stress situations, techniques we can use to make sure that we perform our best.
KAYSian Beilock is the author of "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To." Our phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. We'll be taking more of your calls after this short break. I'm Katty Kay. We're going to take a quick break. Do stay listening.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined in the studio by Sian Beilock. She is the author of "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To." We've had an e-mail, just came in during the break from Joseph in Indianapolis, who's actually responding to Denise, who called in earlier. Joseph writes, "I'm a musician and I have some advice for that mother whose daughter is choking. Have her record herself, both audio and video. This definitely mimics the anxiety of performing. Then she can put the videos on YouTube and get critiques." Denise, that one is just for you. What do you think about that, Sian?
BEILOCKActually, in the book I talk about work suggesting that having these sorts of video type practice situations can be really beneficial because it gets you used to that type of over attention that can really be detrimental when you're performing, say, a well learned musical piece. We've known for some time that putting a mirror in front of someone makes them more self-conscious, which can be sort of the instigator of this paralysis by analysis. You start attending to every step of what you're doing and really flub these musical performances that are practiced essentially to perfection, and the video camera does a lot of the same sorts of things. So I think it's not a bad idea. Maybe YouTube doesn't need to be the end result, but just having the video camera there and aware that people are watching it can be enough to mimic those sorts of situations.
KAYI have Stuart who writes to us as well and we've had a lot of e-mails about pausing the choke, and Stuart writes, "I know when I start to over think a golf swing, but how do I stop this once it starts?
BEILOCKRight, this is a question...
KAYA critical issue.
BEILOCK...that's a really important one and again, I talk in the book about different techniques for different situations. So in these sorts of sports situations where you're performing a highly practiced skill that you know how to do, there's a number of techniques that can be beneficial. So pausing the choke can actually be done by speeding up your performance a little bit. We've shown in these sorts of situations that getting golfers to actually putt a bit faster can prevent them from the type of over attention that's really detrimental, and the reason is that attention, our working memory, our cognitive horsepower takes time to deploy. And if you speed people up a bit, they may be less likely to start paying attention to every step of what they're doing.
BEILOCKSo haste doesn't always make waste and you see this reflected in professional sports where often times in an attempt to disrupt a field goal kicker in football, the other team calls a timeout. This is often talked about as icing the kicker. And there's work showing, both in the laboratory and by examining statistics of professional football, that this icing technique actually does work and one of the reasons we think it's the case is because it gives people too much time to think about every step of what they're doing. Now, as a cautionary note...
KAYAnd then they get nervous?
BEILOCKExactly. And they over think their execution. Now, as a cautionary note, if you're doing an activity like taking a test, where this sort of step-by-step thinking is really crucial, then speeding up may not be the best sort of advice for you. But if you're performing an activity that runs off more on autopilot, then just a little haste can do a lot of good.
KAYSo don't spend too long worrying about what you're going to do. Just get on and do it?
BEILOCKAnd don't spend too much time standing over your putt, you know, as Nike...
BEILOCK...says, just do it.
KAYJust do it. We're going to go back to the phones now to Camille in Frankfort, Mo. (sic) Camille, you have joined "The Diane Rehm Show" to speak to Sian.
CAMILLEThank you. We know that there are children, regardless of their level of intelligence, who just don't take tests well even if they've been trained in school to do so. And what I would like to ask is, is there any research that you have, that you're aware of, that looks at children who are allowed to simply learn and gain confidence with skills until, say, after adolescence who are not put through any kind of testing, say, in a Waldorf school or something, and what kind of adults they become in terms of their self-confidence and their performance.
CAMILLEAnd I will take your comments off the air. Thank you.
KAYAnd, Camille, I'm sorry. I said you're in Missouri, of course you're in Michigan. (laugh) But...
KAY...Sian will take your question.
BEILOCKYeah, I think that's a really interesting question, especially giving the renewed emphasis on testing that's been put on, for example, by our government in terms of suggesting that testing is really an important part of our educational system. And I do think that there is a place for testing but the high stakes that students are put on relatively early here can have negative consequences both for learning and performance. It is important in some sense though, I think, to get used to showing what you know. Although, they don't always, this doesn't always have to be in really high stakes one-shot situations. So students who are given multiple opportunities across a school year to display their knowledge, little quizzes here or there, get used to doing these activities as part of the learning process but not necessarily under the types of pressures that are there in those do-or-die situations.
KAYSian, another tip that you have for people about to take exams or something is to write down what they're feeling beforehand.
BEILOCKYeah, there's a long history of research in clinical psychologies, specifically dealing with depression, showing that journaling or writing about ruminations can really have a number of benefits, health benefits, actually in terms of cognitive benefits too. In terms of increasing people's cognitive horsepower, their working memory and now there's work suggesting that doing some of this writing, writing about worries before students take tests can be beneficial for their performance in the classroom as well. And the idea is that you are in a way, cognitively outsourcing, I call it, the worries to the paper. Once they're down there and you've thought about them, reappraised them a bit, you're just less likely to be consumed with them when the test is on.
KAYSo kind of putting a little bit of distance between yourself and the psychological downward spiral?
BEILOCKRight, and interestingly there's some surprising facts out there or research about who is likely to choke in these academic situations. Work out of my lab, that I talk about in the book as well as other people's research suggests that it's those students who actually have the most cognitive horsepower. So the most working memory, the ones who should be most poised to succeed, who are most likely to...
KAYI thought that was fascinating.
KAYSo sometimes being at the top of your game, being one of the people that's in the very elite of your group, whether it's in sports or in school, can actually be a detriment?
BEILOCKYeah, in academics...
KAYWhen it comes to the big performance.
BEILOCKRight. In academic situations, those students highest in working memory rely a lot on the prefrontal cortex to show what they know and since we know now that these pressure situations essentially zap some of this cognitive horsepower, they end having less of the resources that they normally rely on to show their superior performance. So they end up performing down to the level of students who normally perform lower and what you have then is a testing situation that's getting rid of individual differences instead of establishing them or augmenting them. So you sort of have the high pressure situation pushing the highest performing students down, which is not what you want from an assessment situation.
KAYLet's go to the phones again to Russell, in Atlantic City, N.J. Russell, you're on the air.
RUSSELLI just have one statement and then I have a question for you. But my statement is, I remember when I was, like, 15 years-old, I was in a karate tournament and they had these things called katas, where movements and, you know, it's repetitive and you have to do certain things and I trained for, I would say, a good six, eight months before the tournament just, you know, in this area. And it came to tournament day and I went through the first round, like, perfectly, flawless, I mean, I felt like I was on a cloud. And then somehow, some way, it was a two-way tie for first place, so we had to do a, you know, play-off or whatever, and for some reason it got to me and I started over thinking things. And all of a sudden, halfway through my performance, I locked up and my brain, it was like my neurons just all started firing at the same time and it overloaded my prefrontal cortex and I literally whited-out. I couldn't think.
RUSSELLI literally was standing in the middle of the floor and couldn't think of what I had to do next. Like, I just, it totally wiped my brain clean. But also the other thing I wanted, my question is, have you ever heard of athletes, I'm sure you have, that have entered into what they call the zone? I know Michael Jordan wrote about it. He had a basketball game where he said the basket actually looked like the size of a trash can and every time he threw the ball it just went in and he couldn't even explain it. And I know pitchers in the major leagues have written, like, sometimes they pitch, you know, when they pitch perfect games and stuff that strike zone looks like a soccer goal. I mean, it's that big and they, every pitch they throw is just perfect. It goes exactly where they want it to and, you know, it's just unbelievable.
KAYWell, I was going to...
RUSSELLLike, what happens to the brain?
KAY...I was exactly going to ask the same question, Russell. What is it that's going on in the athlete's brain when they go into what they call the zone?
BEILOCKYeah, that's an interesting question and I think a lot of people talk about this. Oftentimes I joke that after games when athletes have been successful and they're asked to introspect and comment on what they just did, because they were not thinking about every step of performance, they actually don't have very good memories for how their performance unfolded, and this has been established in research that you have to attend to something in order to explicitly remember it and if you're not thinking about every step of what you're doing, if you really are performing at that high level where people talk about being in the zone, you just have a poor memory for what you just did, so I always joke that in these situations athletes end up thanking God or their mothers because they have nothing else to say. They just don't remember what they did. But there's actually research suggesting that when people, batters are playing at the top of the game, they actually perceive the ball to be bigger. So I think are there...
KAYExactly what Russell's just saying...
BEILOCKIs, yeah, being suggested.
KAY...you know, did you see the, he sees the basketball as being the size of a trashcan.
BEILOCKSo a lot of these hunches that people talk about, I bring the research that's been done to bear in the book on this to really suggest why these phenomenon might be there. But I think, you know, being in the zone in my mind is an extreme case of really let -- going with the flow, not over thinking aspects of performance that should really just be left outside conscious awareness.
KAYThere's a question for you here, Sian, from it's an e-mail from Rick. "I was just curious if your guest was herself concerned about choking during today's interview? And if so, what did she do to try to overcome that?" I have to say, Rick, looking at Sian, she looks like the kind of person that would never choke. She looks very calm and collected, but tell us, Sian, your secrets.
BEILOCKThat's great. Yeah, it's funny, I always think that if, when I get up to give talks to students or parents, coaches, teachers, executives, that if I really just lose it, I can always make a joke about studying what I'm doing. Which actually takes a little bit of the pressure off. But I actually -- I've started to practice some of what I talk about in the book, so expressive writing as a way to offload worries. I'm also starting to explore mediation. I talk in the book a lot about research suggesting that mediation can have some really exciting and surprising effects on the brain and body. We know that it increases working memory, your ability to attend to what you want to and get rid of negative thoughts. And it does so by really rewiring the brain. It changes the structure of the brain, and so I'm starting to practice some of these sorts of techniques as the research comes out and as I write about it. Because I think the really are some surprisingly small things that we can do to ensure that we perform at our best.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us please do call 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I just want to read an e-mail that came in from Scott, in Cincinnati who writes, "I coach a team sport and I've noticed a cascading effect when some players choke and for some reason effecting the rest of the team and resulting in an overall decrease in team performance. What's happening here?" That's interesting.
BEILOCKYeah, I think that's an interesting question about whether there's this sort of team choke, right? And I think that there can be these sorts of contagious effects. We sometimes talk about streaks in baseball, for example, an own player's streak in performance, but whether or not there are streaks within a team. This idea that hitting might be contagious in a certain way and I think that there is some research suggesting that we often mimic what others are doing around us, and what others are doing can prime and influence our own behavior. So it's not surprising to me that there could be this cascading effect such that one team, person performs poorly and it leads other players to either feel the pressure on themselves to bring the team out, or to follow in the footsteps of that person, in a sense being primed by their poor performance.
KAYSo they could see somebody else and start almost anticipating it?
KAYI know that so-and-so might perform badly, that's making me nervous and stressed.
BEILOCKRight, about, now the pressure's on me.
KAYAbout the pressure is now on me and I've got to perform even better. I can see that, how that could happen. Let's go to Amanda in Ottawa, Ill. Amanda, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
AMANDAThanks for taking my call.
AMANDAI'm not a student. I'm actually a college professor and I've always had an anxiety about teaching in front of a class, but I used to be able to sort of harness it for the good and then I was on a college campus when one of the shootings happened, and even though I wasn't in the classroom, ever since then, and it doesn't happen all the time, but when I'm teaching, I find that I get really, really ill. I don't feel well, I get a migraine headache, I'm sick to my stomach, I can't remember what it is that I'm going to say, and I think it's somehow associated with, that I associate teaching with this traumatic event, and so I'm wondering if you have any advice for how to overcome that problem in the classroom.
BEILOCKYeah, that's, as any professor knows, getting up in front of 100 students who are looking at you quite blankly can be a nerve-racking experience. But even more so if you have these sorts of stressful associations with it.
KAYBut that's the kind of thing it's very hard to replicate. I mean, you can't get 100 students into your living room to practice your performance so that you don't feel so anxious.
BEILOCKRight. But remember, you don't have to replicate the exact high-stress situation. You just have to get some sort of level of stress, even mild levels of stress with five students watching you or maybe just a colleague is enough to really get you accustomed to performing in that situation. And in fact, the more you give these sorts of lectures and the more you do this and the more you get used to the sort of reactions your body has and the more experiences of success you have after being in those situations, I think the easier it comes. But of course if you have some sort of traumatic event associated with it, then it becomes a whole different situation and I think, you know, off the top of my head, working with someone to deal with feelings about the traumatic event might be really beneficial in terms of not only dealing with the event, but also dealing with the stress that ensues in terms of its association with teaching.
KAYWhy you respond that way.
BEILOCKYeah, I mean, you know, I think it brings up an interesting point that you, often times we feel these acute stressors to perform in a particular finite situation, but the stress we feel in all aspects of our life can seep in and spill over into what we're doing. So, some of the research I talk about in the book, for example, talks about work with medical students studying for their boards, right. So, this is a high-stress situation and you spend a couple months preparing, and what researchers did was take brain scans of these medical students while they were preparing for these really extreme exams, and then a month after. And what they showed is that the prefrontal cortex stopped communicating as well with other brain areas when these students were under stress. Now, keep in mind they were just in the brain imaging center to just do some simple tests that were not stressful, but they were just in the heat of the stress of studying for the exam. And they really just start, stop, their brains stopped working the way it should. But after the exam was over, they recovered. But just, that's -- the idea is that you can have the spillover from stressful events going on in your life.
KAYThe book is absolutely fascinating. It's "Choke: What The Secrets Of The Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To." Sian Beilock has been my guest. Thank you so much for joining me, Sian.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening.
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