Among people with large working memories, those who were typically the most talented, rising cortisol either led to a performance boost or a performance flop depending on whether they were already anxious about math. For students without a fear of math, the more their cortisol increased during the test, the better they performed for these confident students, the body's response to stress actually pushed them to greater heights. In contrast, for students with more anxiety about math, surging cortisol was tied to poor performance.
"Under stress, we have a variety of bodily reactions; how we interpret these reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure," Beilock said. "If a student interprets their physiological response as a sign they are about to fail, they will. And, when taking a math test, students anxious about math are likely to do this. But the same physiological response can also be linked to success if a student's outlook is positive," she further explained.
In other words, a student's perspective can determine success or failure. Students can change their outlooks by writing about their anxieties before a test and "off-loading" their fears, or simply thinking about a time in the past when they have succeeded, her research has shown.
Taking an exam brings on a different kind of pressure than when a student recites a memorized speech before classmates or an athlete plays before a packed stadium, other research by Beilock and her team demonstrates.
Why people choke under pressure
In another paper published this month in the "Journal of Experimental Psychology," Beilock and her colleagues identify, for the first time, differen
|Contact: William Harms|
University of Chicago