The science of choking

It is well documented that some athletes have mental problems when the pressure gets incredibly high.

We're learning more about that. And one thing we're learning is that really wanting to do well doesn't help -- not if the task at hand is something you are better off not thinking about too much. Like making free throws.

If you haven't heard it already, I really recommend you listen to researcher Justin Rao on NBA Today, explaining his findings that road teams are, surprisingly, largely unaffected by late game pressure. But home teams, where players presumably really really want to deliver the win to their fans, are much more likely to get tight and miss more than usual. (One of the players with the biggest drop off: Paul Pierce who, as it happens, reportedly screamed "I'm cold-blooded" after a big make last night.)

As Jonah Lehrer writes in The New Yorker, at CalTech they asked lots of people to perform competitive tasks, for prizes, while their brains were being scanned. And they found a lot of action in a "subcortical region called the ventral striatum, which has been implicated in the processing of various pleasures, from taking cocaine to eating ice cream to receiving cash gifts." So, basically, it's a thrill to win a prize.

But when they ramped up the rewards really high, offering bigger and bigger prizes for those who did well, that thrilling cash/cocaine/ice cream part of the brain went quiet.

Why? Presumably because once you get to worrying about the downside of losing -- that big prize you might not get -- it's not thrilling anymore.

In other words, they stopped thinking about the thrill of winning, and started thinking about the heartache of losing. And that kind of thinking, it seems, can make you choke. Caring too much and thinking too much ... that's warm-blooded, I guess, as in the opposite of cold-blooded.

Lehrer writes:

Although we assume that there’s a simple, linear relationship between financial rewards and productivity -- that’s why Wall Street gives its best employees huge bonuses -- such rewards can backfire, especially when the task is difficult, or requires expertise. Consider a classic study led by the psychologist Sam Glucksberg in the early nineteen-sixties. He gave subjects a standard test of creativity known as “Duncker’s candle problem.” A “high drive” group was told that the person solving the task in the shortest amount of time would receive twenty dollars. A “low drive” group, in contrast, was reassured that their speed didn’t matter. To Glucksberg’s surprise, the subjects with an incentive to think quickly took, on average, more than three minutes longer to find the answer.

There is something poignant about this deconstruction of choking. It suggests that the reason some performers fall apart on the back nine or at the free-throw line is because they care too much. They really want to win, and so they get unravelled by the pressure of the moment. The simple pleasures of the game have vanished; the fear of losing is what remains.