Credit: Pixabay.

When the stakes are high, it’s easy to choke while performing even the most trivial task — and the most loss averse a person is, the easier it is to falter under pressure. New research suggests that a new mindset technique can help people perform well in stressful situations. Essentially, it involves flipping the script by imagining that a supposed gain is already yours and a performance outcome merely decides whether or not you get to keep the prize. This works surprisingly well, preventing a reduction in brain activity in a region of the brain that makes us lose focus and motor coordination as well as perspire in the hands.

Nothing to lose, only to gain

Researchers at Caltech recruited participants in a “perform-to-win money” scenario where they had to completed tasks that required fine motor control and coordination on a computer. Previous research showed that in such situations, the most loss averse a person is, the more likely it was that they would experience heightened activity in a brain structure known as the ventral striatum when high stakes were presented for the first time. This heightened activity reduces communication between it and other brain regions involved in motor control. As a result, people would choke and perform poorly at certain tasks.

Example of a motor task that participants had to complete. The stakes were raised incrementally in steps ($0, $25, $50, $75, $100). Credit: Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

During the new experiment, however, the researchers coached the participants to imagine that the money prize was already theirs. For instance, some of the instructions included things such as :

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“When the word Loss appears on screen (see image below), you should regard the monetary incentives shown at the beginning of each round as “your” money. Imagine the amount, in cash, sitting in your pocket as you complete the round. Imagine that, if you are successful on the round, you will get to keep your money, but if you are unsuccessful, you will have to give this money to the experimenter. Imagine how it would feel to lose this money.”

This reframing means that the participants were performing in order to keep their money, not gain it. And it worked! All participants — not just the most loss averse of them — experienced less choking than the control group that didn’t receive reappraisal training.

Brains scans were performed throughout the performance tasks, showing reduced activity in the ventral striatum at the time that the high stakes were first presented to participants. The researchers interpret this as the brain being less focused on the size of the prize. Skin conductance at the fingertips was also measured (perspiration is a hallmark of elevated stress) showing that the participants in the reappraisal group had far fewer signs of heightened stress than the control group.

Effects of incentive magnitude in the ventral striatum ROI. Credit: Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The findings presented in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience show that this sort of intervention, which targets the incentive directly, may be more effective than other techniques. Traditionally, it’s advised that people who perform a task under pressure should relax their bodies or visualize success in order to minimize the risk of choking.

So, next time you have that big exam or job interview, you might want to try reframing the situation using this technique — although more research is required to appraise its rate of success.

“In summary, we validate a novel intervention that successfully abolishes performance decrements under high incentives in a skilled motor task, and identify its underlying neural and physiological substrates. Although further testing is required to determine the generality of this intervention to other types of task, by targeting the representation of the incentive, reappraisal may prove to be a highly flexible intervention for choking under pressure.”