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Why We Crack Under Pressure

By Lauren GravitzMay 1, 2002 5:00 AM


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Psychologists have long debated why people flub tasks when the heat is on. Do performers get distracted, for instance, by someone coughing in a crowd? Or do they become too self-conscious, fixating on details that they normally ignore? Sian Beilock, a graduate student in psychology and kinesiology at Michigan State University, took to the putting green to find which explanation is correct. She and colleague Tom Carr divided up 54 subjects and gave them golf lessons by using three techniques. One group trained normally. A second was constantly distracted by random recorded words, one of which the trainees had to repeat as they practiced. A third group was kept continually self-aware by a video camera.

When Beilock tested her subjects on their new golf skills, only the third group performed as well as it had under non-testing conditions. She interprets this to mean that the difficulty of performing under pressure is the same as the difficulty of performing in front of the camera: too much self-consciousness. "If you pay too much attention to what you're doing, you break down the automatic process," she says. Beilock proposes that people in public professions—athletes, actors, even lawyers—train to adapt to performance pressure so they will be able to keep focused at the crucial time.

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