Choking Under Pressure

We have all heard the term choking under pressure before. In the sports arena we talk about the bricks in basketball when the game-winning free throw is missed. In academic domains, we refer to cracking in important test taking situations. But what exactly do these terms mean and why do less-than-optimal performances occur—especially when incentives for optimal performance are maximal?

Choking Under Pressure Definition

Choking Under PressureThe desire to perform as well as possible in situations with a high degree of personally felt importance is thought to create performance pressure. However, despite the fact that performance pressure often results from aspirations to function at one’s best, pressure-packed situations are where suboptimal skill execution may be most visible. The term choking under pressure has been used to describe this phenomenon. Choking is defined as performing more poorly than expected, given one’s skill level, and is thought to occur in many different tasks.

Choking Under Pressure Analysis

Some of the first attempts to account for unwanted skill decrements can be traced back to investigations of the arousal-performance relationship. According to models of this relationship (often termed drive theories or the Yerkes-Dodson curve), an individual’s performance level is determined by his or her current level of arousal or drive. Too little arousal, and the basketball player will not have the tools necessary to make the shot. Too much arousal, and the shot will be missed as well. Although drive theories have been useful in accounting for some types of performance failures, they fall short in a number of ways. First, drive theories are mainly descriptive. That is, drive theories link arousal and performance, but they do not explain how arousal exerts its impact. Second, within drive theory models, there are often debates concerning how the notion of arousal should be conceptualized (e.g., as a physiological construct, emotional construct, or both). Third, there are situations in which certain types of drive theories have trouble accounting for observed behavior. For example, one derivation of drive theory (i.e., social facilitation) predicts that one’s dominant response will be exhibited in high-arousal or high-drive situations. However, this does not always seem to hold when the pressure is on.

Building on drive theory accounts of performance failure, more recent work has attempted to understand how pressure changes how one thinks about and attends to the processes involved in skill performance. These accounts are often termed attentional theories. Two main attentional theories have been proposed to explain choking under pressure.

First, distraction theories propose that pressure creates a distracting environment that compromises working memory (i.e., the short-term memory system that maintains, in an active state, a limited amount of information relevant to the task at hand). If the ability of working memory to maintain task focus is disrupted, performance may suffer. In essence, distraction-based accounts of skill failure suggest that performance pressure shifts attention from the primary task one is trying to perform (e.g., math problem solving) to irrelevant cues (e.g., worries about the situation and its consequences). Under pressure then, there is not enough of working memory’s limited resources to successfully support both primary task performance and to entertain worries about the pressure situation and its consequences. As a result, skill failure ensues.

Although there is evidence that pressure can compromise working memory resources, causing failure in tasks that rely heavily on this short-term memory system, not all tasks rely heavily on working memory (and thus not all tasks should be harmed when working memory is consumed). For example, well-learned sensorimotor skills, which have been the subject of the majority of choking research in sport (e.g., simple golf putting, baseball batting, soccer dribbling), are thought to become proceduralized with practice such that they do not require constant attention and control— that is, such skills are not thought to depend heavily on working memory at high levels of learning. How then do such skills fail, if not via the consumption of working memory resources? A second class of theories, generally known as explicit monitoring theories, has been used to explain such failures.

Explicit monitoring theories suggest that pressure situations raise self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly. This focus on the self is thought to prompt individuals to turn their attention inward on the specific processes of performance in an attempt to exert more explicit monitoring and control than would be applied in a nonpressure situation. For example, the basketball player who makes 85% of his or her free throws in practice may miss the game-winning foul shot because, to ensure an optimal outcome, the player tried to monitor the angle of the wrist as he or she shot the ball. This component of performance is not something that the basketball player would normally attend to. Paradoxically, such attention is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performance processes that normally run largely outside of conscious awareness.

From the previous description of distraction and explicit monitoring theories, one might conclude that performance pressure exerts one kind of impact on cognitive skill performance and another kind of impact on sensorimotor skill performance. It seems more likely, however, that pressure always exerts at least two different effects: It populates working memory with worries, and it entices the performer to try to pay more attention to step-by-step control, resulting in a double whammy. These two effects may be differentially relevant to performance depending on the attentional demands of the task being performed. If a task depends heavily on working memory but does not involve much in the way of proceduralized routines (e.g., difficult and novel math problem solving), then it will suffer from pressure-induced consumption of working memory, but it will not be harmed by the attempt to focus what attention remains on step-by-step control that is also induced by pressure. Conversely, if a task relies heavily on proceduralized routines but puts little stress on working memory (e.g., a well-learned golf putt), then that task will suffer from performance pressure because of the shift of attention to step-by-step control and not because the overall capacity of working memory has been reduced.

In conclusion, research examining the choking under pressure phenomenon does not seek merely to catalogue instances of performance failure but also attempts to shed light on the reasons why skills fail in high-stakes situations. Such knowledge aids in the development of training regiments and performance strategies designed to alleviate these less-than-optimal performances.


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  3. Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2005). When high-powered people fail: Working memory and “choking under pressure” in math. Psychological Science, 16, 101-105.
  4. Gray, R. (2004). Attending to the execution of a complex sensorimotor skill: Expertise differences, choking and slumps. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10, 42-54.