Getty Images  David Madison
When the stakes are even high, the calmest, most icy pros can choke. For example, let's never forget the collective collapse of the Warriors against LeBron's Cavs in the NBA finals, or the Falcons who make a 25-point Super Bowl strike to the Patriots.
For fans, such epic failures can be incomprehensible, but science has a pretty good understanding of how choking happens. Not only that, but a new study suggests a simple way in which you can reduce your chance of blowing in high-pressure situations.
First, some information about how scientists think about choking. Earlier research has shown that monetary incentives can improve performance. That's our intuitive understanding: people will work harder (and get better results) when money is available. And the more money is at stake, the better off they are.
But that's true only to a point – and here we come to "choking under pressure." For studies have also found that very high rewards actually have adverse effects on performance; In essence, these oversized incentives negatively affect emotional and cognitive control and even affect fine motor control and coordination.
A recent study investigated this relationship and found that this is especially true for people who were the most "lossy". Most people do not want to lose what they already have – this is "loss-repellent". – but in experiments the participants, who were particularly anxious to give up their profits, tend to strangle more often.
The researchers also found that activity in a particular part of the participants' brains, the ventral striatum, increased as the stakes were increased. However, as soon as the task had begun, the activity of the ventral striatum decreased among participants with a high risk of loss – there was also less communication between the ventral striatum and areas of the brain that control motor function. As this communication subsided, the performance suffered and the choking became more frequent.
All this suggests a strong connection between mental state and physical fitness. And that brings us to the latest research. In the latest study the researchers took all the accumulated knowledge of choking into their hands and asked what would happen if people were to mentally transform their incentives.
The trick is this: Instead of gambling to raise money, participants were asked to pretend that they were not playing to lose money they had already won. While this was not necessarily true, they found it drastically reduced. In essence, the players had made their brains stay pressurized. (The researchers also found less sweat on the players' fingers, another sign that they had reduced their stress.)
It is not yet clear how well this technique can be applied to other situations, but the results suggest for a new approach, the problem of suffocation. The next time you're in a high-stakes situation, instead of trying to distract yourself or imagine winning, just pretend you've already won.