Here are two well known facts about human psychology: one, we're prone to choking under pressure. Raise the stakes enough and most people will fall apart. And two, we're loss averse. People hate losing something we already have more than we enjoy gaining something new. Could these two quirks of the human mind be related?

That's what researcher from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine set out to discover with a fascinating series of studies in which they scanned the brains of participants as they played computer games demanding physical coordination for increasingly high monetary rewards.

The British Psychological Society Research Digest blog has a long write-up with all the details for those interested in the specifics of the neuroscience (if you know what the ventral striatum is, it might be for you). But for those of us less well versed in the minutiae of brain structures, the essential takeaway is this: the scientists seem to have found a dead simple but effective trick to stop yourself from choking under pressure.

The mindset that keeps you from getting stressed under pressure

The researchers' insight was based on a simple observation. More risk average participants cracked earlier, and that was reflected in a reduction of activity in the brain area known as the ventral striatum, which plays a role in coordinating movement. Could the scientists find a way to keep that sucker humming away under pressure for longer?

The answer turned out to be yes. They discovered the trick was flipping the way study subjects thought about the reward on offer. The researchers hypothesized that mounting pressure triggered participants to start fearing loss more than striving for gain. What if they rejigged the conditions to ensure that switch in outlook didn't happen?

"Intriguingly, when the researchers altered the stakes of the task, so that there was no money to be won, but rather success meant keeping (i.e. not losing) money the participants already had, then the more loss averse participants were now less prone to choking," BPS reports. The key brain region continued to light up despite the rich rewards.

This suggested a simple way others outside the lab might be able to mirror these results. If you're performing some sort of high-stakes action, would thinking of what you're doing as holding on to gains rather than attempting to win a reward stop you from choking?

The scientists tested this idea out and, lo and behold, it worked. When the researchers "coached their participants to reappraise the stakes - to simply imagine that they already had the high prize money on offer and were performing for the chance to keep that money," this "technique dramatically reduced choking, and in fact it did so for all participants," claims BPS.

And it wasn't just the results of the game that shifted. Players' physical responses changed too. When the scientists looked at physical markers of stress in players' bodies, both brain scans and measures of perspiration showed this seemingly simple trick helped participants keep their cool. Players just didn't get as stressed when they thought this way.

So if you've got a big game, a big test, or a big presentation coming up, keep this study in mind. Simply by imagining your effort as a way to hold on to the trophy, grade, or job you've already won, you can keep cool and perform at your best. Thanks, science!

Published on: Feb 15, 2019