Has it happened to you? 

You've done the prep work for an important meeting, spending hours on end crafting and rehearsing a presentation that can make or break your next deal. But the hour finally arrives and...nothing goes right. You crack under pressure, too nervous to successfully present. Meeting participants are left unimpressed, or even worse: bored.

It doesn't matter what industry you're in -- if you cannot handle situations when the stakes are raised, your skills, confidence, and ability to perform may suffer. It's a frustrating reality that affects how we compete and how (or if) we succeed. But according to new research, it's a reality that you can avoid with one simple method.

A study at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine took a look at what would happen to study participants if monetary stakes were raised while participants carried out computer-based tasks. As stakes got bigger, people were more likely to perform poorly. Brain scans found that with increased stakes, there was an increase in activity in the ventral striatum (a key brain structure) and a decrease in communication between the ventral striatum and the motor control regions found at the front of the brain. Participants, in turn, suffered in performance.

But here's where it gets interesting: researchers then took away any additional money to be won, and instead defined task success as "keeping (i.e. not losing) money the participants already had." Essentially, when researchers changed the stakes in this way, participants were less prone to making errors at high monetary amounts. 

Inspired by these results, researchers set up a new study, to see if participants could perform better by getting them to alter how they looked at the stakes. Specifically, researchers found that when participants imagined that they already were in possession of the high amounts of prize money being offered -- and that they were, in turn, working to succeed so they could keep the money -- participants choked under pressure less. Reduced activity levels in the ventral striatum were also found.  

What does this mean for you? You can prevent the adverse effects high stakes and high pressure may put on your cognitive or emotional control. Do this by essentially distracting your brain from these high stakes: reappraise your stakes, and visualize success. 

Pretend the reward you seek is yours already, and that you must perform well in order to keep it. But remember: pressure is what makes diamonds. 

Published on: Mar 6, 2019
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