This Trick Stops You From Choking Under Pressure

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Scientists found a new way to change how people think about winning and losing.

Choking up is the worst. You get all ready for an exam/game/job interview, but when it comes time to show your best stuff, you panic and mess it up.

Luckily, a group of scientists from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine just found a new way for people to trick their own brains into not choking up.

In the study, the scientists gave participants two ways of looking a task. In one, they said participants would win money if they performed well. In the other, they said the participants had already won the money, and they were simply doing the task to keep the money. Or as the scientists put it:

Lose version: "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."
Gain version: "You should imagine that you begin each round with no money in your pocket. Regard the monetary incentive as an amount of money that you have the opportunity to win. Imagine that if you are successful on the round, the experimenter will give you this money, in cash, but if you are unsuccessful you will end the round as you began—with nothing. Imagine how it would feel to gain this money. "

If humans were perfectly rational, the two situations would be identical. But people aren't rational. The scientists found the participants performing to keep the money, rather than win it, performed better.

Why? Because the fear of not winning the money gets people's brains into a tizzy, messing up their ability to perform. They get overexcited and nervous. Thinking you've already won tricks your brain into not taking the task so seriously and getting less excited.

"We confirmed that when participants interpreted the incentive as a potential monetary gain they choked under pressure; that is, their performance at the highest level of incentive was significantly worse than their performance at its peak," the scientists wrote. "However, when they reappraised the incentive as a potential monetary loss, this choking effect was significantly reduced."

So next time you have an important performance, exam, interview or whatever else, try thinking of the job/money/gold medal as a loss, rather than a gain.