PSYCHOLOGY: Crunch Time

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Science  03 Dec 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5702, pp. 1651e
DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5702.1651e

All of us have had to perform under pressure, either during an athletic contest or an academic examination, and sometimes we miss the penalty kick or choose the antonym instead of the synonym. A great deal of research, some of it under the contemporary guise of sports psychology, has indicated that pressure elicits suboptimal performance of oft-rehearsed sensorimotor tasks by disrupting automated execution; in other words, pressure engages explicit monitoring and results in our having to learn how to perform the task all over again.

Beilock et al. have shifted the spotlight from the pitch into the classroom and assessed the performance of college students on easy and hard modular arithmetic problems in the absence or presence of social and monetary inducements to select the right answer quickly. The hard problems demanded lots of working memory, and the results suggest that the effect of pressure is to distract some portion of working memory, leaving less available to support problem-solving. In another analysis, Beilock and Carr find that when comparing a group of individuals with high working memory capacity to one with less, the performance (on difficult problems) of the former group under pressure declines to the point where their advantage over the other group (measured on easy problems) actually disappears. The implication, as they note, is that the high-achieving students (see Garman, Book Reviews, p. 1685) may be more likely to stumble under pressure. — GJC

J. Exp. Psych: Gen. 133, in press (2004); Psychol. Sci. 16, in press (2005).

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