For a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University attempted to find out more about why this happens. Their results suggest that actually it’s only a subgroup of high working memory people who have this problem and it’s because of their high distractibility. These high ability chokers or brain freeze victims are “typically reliant on their higher working memory resources for advanced problem solving” but their poor attentional control renders them easily distracted by anxiety, causing their usual mental deftness to break down when the pressure is on.
Jason Sattizahn and his colleagues recruited 83 participants aged 18-35, including 35 men, from areas near universities. First they tested the participants’ attention control abilities using the well-established Flanker Task: participants had to identify as quickly as possible the direction of central arrows that were either surrounded by congruent flankers (<<<<<) or incongruent flankers (<<><<). It’s a test of attention control because it takes mental concentration to ignore the flankers, especially on incongruent trials.
Next, the researchers tested the participants’ on some tricky mental arithmetic questions, both without any pressure and then under high pressure conditions in which there was a monetary incentive, peer pressure (poor performance would adversely affect another participant) and risk of public shaming (they were told their performance would be shared with professors and others).
Finally, the participants completed two tests of their working memory capacity: they had to solve a sequence of basic mathematical operations or sentence comprehension questions, with each one interspersed with presentation of a single letter on screen. At the end of each run of between three and seven trials, the participants had to try to recall the letters in the correct order.
The results were clear: high stakes pressure adversely affected the math performance of participants with high working memory capacity, but did not affect the performance of participants with lower working memory capacity (replicating a phenomenon first identified in a paper published in 2005**). What’s new here is the additional measure of attentional control. This showed that only high working memory participants with poor attentional control showed evidence of this mental performance choking under pressure.