For several decades, the relationship between stress and performance gained much attention. Numerous psychological researches provided evidence for the anecdotal phenomenon that pressure negatively affects cognitive and motor control during performance. This phenomenon is known as ‘choking under pressure’, defined as performing more poorly than expected, in situations where performance pressure is at a maximum, given at one’s skill level.
Contradicting theories on choking under pressure
A widely accepted explanation for choking under pressure in cognitive tasks is the distraction hypothesis (Wine, 1971). In accordance to distraction theories, it is proposed in high-pressure situations, the individual’s attention needed to perform the task at hand is coopted by task irrelevant thoughts and worries such as worries about the situation and its consequences that leads to choking which harm their performances. (Beilock & Carr, 2001; Lewis & Linder, 1997; Wine, 1971). Essentially, pressure creates a dual-task environment in which situation-related concerns compete with the attention required to accomplish the task at hand. Distraction-based accounts of skill failure propose that performance pressure affects concentration from the main task that one is trying to perform to irrelevant cues. Therefore, there are insufficient working memory resources to successfully support both primary task performance and to deal with worries about the pressure situation and its consequences under pressure which results in skill failure.
Although there is evidence that pressure prompts failure by sidetracking attention away from skill performance, a contradicting class of theories has been put forth as an alternate explanation for skill failure. Baumeister (1984) proposed a self-focus theory called explicit-monitoring theory which claims the opposite that pressure could in¬‚uence the performance of skilled individuals by causing them to engage explicit processes that interfere with carrying out the procedure such as increase in their self- consciousness and anxiety about performing well (Gray, 2004; Masters, 1992) which in turn leads performers to emphasize their attention on skill execution to ensure optimal result (Beilock & Carr, 2001). This focus on the oneself is thought to prompt individuals to turn their focus inward on the precise processes of performance in an effort to apply more explicit monitoring and control than would be applied in a non-pressure situation.
Distraction and explicit monitoring theories of choking under pressure pose very different mechanisms of skill failure. While distraction theories suggest that pressure influence performance by shifting attention and working memory resources away from it, explicit monitoring theories suggest that pressure shifts too much attention toward skill processes and procedures. However it is unclear as to whether distraction or explicit monitoring will impact performance, even though both mechanisms have tendencies to occur in certain contexts.
We believe that pressure can do both in aspects of the performance environment itself. Distracting thoughts, explicit monitoring, or even both will be lead to depending on the specific elements of stress suffered in high-pressure situations as it may essentially involve multiple components; therefore, exerting multiple effects. The questions as to whether performance fail or succeed, and how this failure will occur, rest on aspects of the pressure situation and the required attention for the task being performed.
The aim of the experiment is to study the effect of different levels of pressure inflicted by an audience on people’s performance (word count and accuracy) in a typing task.
This study was conducted on a total of 102 undergraduate psychology students, of which 54 were females and 48 were males. The participants ranged from 17 to 55 years of age (Mean=20.51 years; SD=6.28). The participants performed a typing task under 3 di¬€erent environments which is no pressure, low pressure and high pressure in random order. The no pressure condition involves participants typing while the projector screen was turned off, so no one else in the room could see what they were typing. In the low pressure condition, the screen was turned on, so the rest of the class could see what was being typed. In the high pressure condition, the class crowded around the participant as they typed. In each condition, they are allocated a script of text which they need to replicate as much and as accurately as possible in the time allocated (45 seconds). Quality of performance is analyzed by counting the number of words typed and errors made.
We hypothesize that pressure have a negative impact on performance. In ‘no pressure’ condition, we predict that the participants would achieve the highest word count with lowest number of errors, whereas in ‘high pressure’ condition, we predict that the participants would achieve the lowest word count with highest number of errors.
The results showed that the number of words typed was significantly affected by pressured condition. Participants’ performance speed was fastest in the low pressure condition compared to the high-pressure condition. The results showed that accuracy was significantly affected by pressure condition. As for the participants’ accuracy, it was greater in the no-pressure condition compared to the low-pressure and the high-pressure condition. As such, the results of this study support the hypothesis proposed.
These findings are consistent with the study conducted by Gray (2004) who examined how expert baseball players batted in a baseball simulator in both low-pressure and high-pressure conditions. Gray (2004) found an increase in batting errors and movement variability under high pressure, relative to low-pressure situation; suggesting that pressure negatively affects performance.
As with the baseball players, we believe that our participants also experienced distracting thoughts and/or explicit monitoring under pressure which interrupted their performance. As a result, the participants experience a decrease in typing speed; hence, produced less word count and made more errors while typing.
Strengths of the experiment
This experiment assessed both male and female which rules out any possible gender difference. With the wide age range of 17 to 55 years of age, it also rules out age difference. Also, by manipulating the pressure environment, individuals will focus on the process of performance versus the outcome of performance, allowing us to study different aspects affecting one’s performance in pressure-filled situations.
Improvement to the experiment
A larger sample size would have enabled us to achieve more accurate results.
This study enables us to better understand performance failure, and ways to prevent it; across a variety of skill types and situations, from a student taking a final exam paper to a professional athlete playing on the field. Such developed knowledge aids the improvement of training regiments and performance strategies designed to lighten these choking performances as such reducing the possibility of failure.
Understanding the reason choking occurs is important for developing training methods to deal with it. Understanding skill failure and success under pressure may give a clear view on the similarities and differences in the cognitive control structures underlying a diverse set of skills. Furthermore, by uncovering the mechanisms that’s leading pressure-induced failure, we can also further our understanding of how emotional and motivational factors combine with memory and attention processes to impact skill learning and performance. An understanding of how the performance environment modifies cognitive processes not only advances our understanding of the “choking under pressure” phenomenon explicitly but also provides an perception into related situations in which performance unintentionally falters, ranging from test anxiety to the threat of conforming to a negative stereotype.