Keep calm & carry on

A Q&A with associate professor of psychology Sian Beilock, who researches the science of choking and staying cool under pressure.

By Christina Pillsbury

For any of us who have ever blanked on a math test after days of studying, or wracked our minds for hours looking for the perfect final sentence for a paper, Sian Beilock has a suggestion: Don’t over think it. An associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Beilock made a name for herself investigating the impact of stress on human performance. Beilock and her team found that skilled athletes largely run on auto-pilot, but when they over-analyze that next free throw or putt, they’re more likely to cave to pressure. Singing to themselves, among other tricks, helps athletes keep their cool, she found.

Beilock's research has shown that clutch performances and agonizing chokes aren’t limited to places like the United Center or Wrigley Field. For every Michael Jordan at Madison Square Garden or Jean Van de Velde at golf’s Open Championship, Beilock says there are countless other, more mundane moments when people succeed or fail based on the same kind of pressure and mental presence. For a closer look at the psychology of choking and the business of helping people keep their cool, Grey City caught up with Beilock last month in her Green Hall laboratory.

Grey City: You write about famous athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, Sam Snead, and Maria Sharapova throwing away big leads. Have you talked to any of them since your book, Choke, was published?

Sian Beilock: There are a few athletes in the book whose sports psychologists—the people who work one-on-one with them—have said “I really want to give your book to them, but can I cut out that page?” I can’t name names, but definitely a lot of the athletes in the book know about it. I often talk to coaches, Olympic coaches, or coaches of professional athletes and I think they’re really interested in this idea that there are simple psychological tools we can use to produce our best performances.

GC: Do you get calls or e-mails from non-athletes looking for help about choking?

SB: I’ve had some interesting ones about people who are artists or painters who feel like they get up to the canvas and can’t paint or write. [When] we talk about choking under pressure, we think of these canonical situations, like the Olympics or the job interview, but there are activities that we do on a daily basis that we can perform poorly on when under stress. Whether it’s being a writer and not being able to write, or parallel parking in front of your spouse, or giving a toast at a wedding, or ending up in the elevator for two minutes with your boss and trying not to look like a fool, there’s all these situations that, although they’re not for a gold medal, can really show some of the same characteristics of flubs under pressure.

GC: What’s your all-time favorite choke?

SB: I think one that always stands out for me is Sarah Palin’s Katie Couric interview. I think that is really a great example of where she just hadn’t practiced. It was rumored that she hadn’t let the handlers quiz her and get her ready. That’s just in such contrast to someone like Obama, in terms of how he handles giving speeches or questions from reporters, he spends a lot of time practicing.

I did a TV show the other day where I had to read off of a teleprompter and it’s actually really hard. It’s been reported that Obama spends lots of time reading off teleprompters and practicing such that he seems very fluent in these sorts of situations. It struck me that it was a skill that needed to be acquired.

GC: In your book you write about giving talks to business leaders. How do your psychological methods mesh with their corporate attitudes?

SB: I think a lot of what I recommend is counter-intuitive, but it’s simple, so it’s appealing. Whether it’s writing about your worries, or realizing that in putting groups of people together everyone shouldn’t have the same expertise—we know that two heads with different sorts of backgrounds are better than one—or realizing that even though you have a lot of knowledge, you may not be able to predict how a consumer who’s never seen your product will handle it.

I think that a lot of this is stuff they hadn’t thought about before, and the idea that you can give them some facts and ways to ensure better performance is enticing to them. Especially some of the techniques where it’s training under stress for an emergency situation, or getting ready for a presentation, people have told me that these techniques are really effective in terms of whatever they’re trying to accomplish.

I had an executive tell me about an anthrax scare at his company and how even though they had gone over drills and procedures, when it actually happened, no one performed the way they were supposed to. From that [I realized] they had actually practiced, [but] had just talked about it. Actually practicing what you might do in a do-or-die situation and upping the ante a bit is an important part. Since then, they’ve implemented those actual drills.

GC: You were a competitive lacrosse player before becoming an academic. Did you ever choke on the field or at a desk?

SB: I never took tests in the real situation as well as I did in practice tests, whether it was the SAT or the GRE. And there are definitely performances in the athletic world where I never played as well as I could have in front of Olympic coaches or college recruiters, so I think I’ve always been keenly aware that subtle environmental conditions can change your ability to show what you know or how you play.

GC: What was your impression of Christina Aguilera’s version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl?

SB: I mean, it was obvious that she had messed up the words, but she kept on going very fluidly, which I think speaks to the fact that she’s a very practiced performer.

That’s an example that I’d liken to when Chief Justice Roberts swore in Obama and he messed up. This is something that’s so well practiced, and you get in front of all these people and you just pay a little too much attention to what you’re saying, and all of a sudden it seems to go out the window.

GC: With your heightened knowledge about choking, how do you deal with the phenomenon in your own classroom?

SB: I try and have multiple tests so that everything isn’t riding on one performance. And I talk to my students about some of the tips I talk about in the book as a way to study and get ready. So this idea that if you just read over your notes, you might not have a good idea of what you’re going to be able to show on a test, but actually getting together in a study group and testing each other, getting used to some of those stressful situations, that also helps you understand what you do and don’t know. I try to get them ready in that way.

GC: How do you think the curve of standardized tests is thrown by instances of choking?

SB: We know that a lot of these tests don’t have great predictive validity, so the SAT, for example, and the GRE don’t predict performance much past first quarter grades. And one of the reasons I think this is the case is because you don’t always get a good metric of what students know or their abilities from these tests because factors like the situation are impacting some students and not others. So in the book I talk about this idea that those students with the most general intellectual abilities—the most cognitive horsepower, which is one of the building blocks of IQ—tend to be the most likely to choke. And what you have is a testing situation where you’re truncating the distribution such that those people who should be performing at the top are performing lower.

I think this research highlights the dangers of relying too heavily on these scores as predictors of future success. This is especially true if you think about minority groups or women in the math and sciences. A lot of the work I talk about in the book suggests that people can perform below their potential because they’re just aware of stereotypes of how they should perform, because of their ethnic group or their gender group.

What this suggests to me is that if we have these groups systematically performing below their potential, we’re missing potential segments of the population that might be earmarked to go on and succeed in future activities.

GC: How has your research weighed in on your ideas about parenting, now that you’re expecting?

SB: Well, it’s a girl, and there’s a whole chapter in there about gender differences in performance, so I’m very acutely aware of these sorts of things. I think that one thing that the book hopefully gets across is that a lot of the differences we see later on in terms of selection into math and sciences and things like that can be traced back to exposure and experiences early on. I’m a big proponent of having Legos and puzzles for girls as well as boys. I guess I was raised pretty gender-neutral, so I’ll probably do the same.

I don’t think I have a philosophy yet; everyone asks me what my child-rearing philosophy is, and I’m sometimes stressed out that I don’t have one. [Laughs.]

GC: One of the tips in your book to improve performance is to write about your anxieties for 10-15 minutes before a big test. Have you written down your anxieties about parenting?

SB: It hasn’t gotten to that point yet! I guess I’ve become more aware of the fact that kids are really influenced by their teachers, by their parents, by the stresses around them, and a lot of academic situations in this day and age are pressure cookers, especially early on. So I would want to ensure that emphasis gets placed on learning and knowledge rather than just performance on a test.