You know the feeling: You’re giving a huge presentation in front of the most influential people in the company. You’ve spent weeks working on your speech and days putting together your slides. And then the worst possible thing happens: You completely forget everything you were supposed to say.
“Choking” is super common. But have you ever wondered why people who are extremely competent and good at their jobs choke under pressure?
Science has some answers.
Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, explains that top performers are more likely to choke due to their higher levels of “cognitive horsepower” or working memory. Think of your brain as a mental to-do list: You have a lot of things you need to check off, but when all sorts of other clutter finds its way into your life, it’s harder to get those tasks done. In the case of choking, your brain gets so overpowered with worries and pressures that you can’t stick to the basic agenda at hand.
In her experiment, Beilock created two groups—a higher working memory group and a lower working memory group—and group members were each given a set of easy math problems and harder ones. These groups were split into two different scenarios: one low-pressure situation (taking a practice test) and a high-pressure situation (completing math problems but with the presumption that it was a competition with prizes and expectations).
While the higher working memory group came out on top in the low-pressure situation, adding on pressures seen in the typical office environment (competition, incentives, the works) even when answering simple math problems completely eliminated that advantage. These results gave the impression that they choked.
Why is this? High performers tend to overthink and over-analyze situations, especially when there’s an important decision or task riding on their work. These moments screw up our internal “autopilot” mode, where we’re repeating tasks we’ve already done time and time again. Going back to the idea of a mental to-do list, even if you’ve done your tasks before, new stresses on the brain (for example, being in front of a room of senior-level executives) can mess with your “action items” and make everything seem mushy.
Looking to keep it together when you’re in a high-pressure scenario? Spend a great deal of time practicing your craft beforehand. If you don’t want to completely break down on that speech you’re giving in front of the company’s board of trustees, practice giving your speech to other co-workers and even friends. This will help you access that autopilot mode when the time comes, even if you aren’t totally operating mindlessly.
And if you do find yourself falling apart? Getting back on track can be as easy as taking a few deep breaths—or squeezing your left hand, which activates the left hemisphere of your brain.
But no matter what you try, the old saying is true: Keep calm and carry on.