Skilled performance under pressure and stereotype threat
The findings of our memory and attention research carry implications for skill execution in high pressure situations or in situations where there are incentives associated with optimal performance. Our work in this area has been motivated by two basic assumptions: (1) High-stakes environments sub-optimally alter the deployment of attentional resources during real-time execution, resulting in skill failure; (2) The way in which a skill fails will be relatively independent of the type of environmental factor that triggers failure (e.g., pressure to perform well, stereotype threat), but dependent on the cognitive control structures required for the successful performance of that particular task. Specifically, our work suggests that most types of high-stakes situations (whether instantiated via performance pressure, math anxiety, or a negative performance stereotype) exert at least two different effects – they populate working memory with worries about the situation and its consequences and they entice the performer to try to pay attention to the step-by-step unfolding of performance in order to ensure an optimal skill outcome. That is, high-stakes situations may simultaneously impact working memory availability and direct attention in ways that are counterproductive. However, these two effects may be differentially relevant to performance depending on the attentional demands of the task being performed. If a task loads heavily on working memory but does not involve much in the way of proceduralized routines (e.g., difficult and multi-step math problem solving), then it will suffer from a reduction of working memory capacity, but it will be relatively indifferent to the attempt to focus what attention remains more specifically on step-by-step control that is also induced by the high-stakes environment. Conversely, if a task relies heavily on proceduralized routines but puts little stress on working memory (e.g., well-learned sensorimotor skills), then that task will suffer because of the situation-induced shift of attention to step-by-step control and not because the overall capacity of working memory has been reduced. Tasks that concurrently load on working memory and rely upon proceduralized skills might be susceptible to both effects at once. And indeed, our work examining performance under pressure and stereotype threat is consistent with the above hypotheses. Each of these areas of research is described in more detail below.
Choking under pressure
The desire to perform as well as possible in situations with a high degree of personally felt importance is thought to create performance pressure. Paradoxically, despite the fact that performance pressure results from aspirations to function at one’s best, pressure-packed situations are often where suboptimal skill execution is most visible. The term choking under pressure has been used to describe this phenomenon. In everyday life, we talk about “bricks” in basketball when the game winning shot is on the line, or “yips” in golf when an easy 3 foot putt to win the tournament stops short, or “cracking” in important test-taking situations where a course grade or college admission is at stake as unmistakable instances of such incentive or pressure-induced performance decrements. Surprisingly, while research concerning the cognitive mechanisms governing superior task performance is abundant across both cognitive and sensorimotor skill domains, substantially less attention has been devoted to suboptimal skill execution – especially in situations in which optimal task performance is not only desired, but expected. Insight into the mechanisms governing execution failure is important, as it will not only further our understanding of the variables responsible for skill decrements, but those responsible for success as well.
Select Relevant Publications:
Beilock, S.L. (2008). Math performance in stressful situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 339-343. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L., & DeCaro, M. S. (2007). From poor performance to success under stress: Working memory, strategy selection, and mathematical problem solving under pressure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 33, 983-998. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L. (2007). Choking under pressure. In R. Baumeister and K. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social psychology. Sage Publications.
DeCaro, M. S., & Wieth, M., & Beilock, S. L. (2007). Methodologies for examining problem solving success and failure. Methods, 42, 58-67. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L., & Gray, R. (2007). Why do athletes “choke” under pressure? In G. Tenenbaum and R.C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology, 3rd Ed. (pp. 425-444). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2005). When high-powered people fail: Working memory and “choking under pressure” in math. Psychological Science, 16, 101-105. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L. (2005). Choking under pressure. In R. M. Bartlett, C. Gratton, and C. Rolf (Eds.), Encyclopedia of international sports studies (pp. 258-359; see also 1462-1463). Routledge.
Beilock, S. L., Kulp, C. A., Holt, L. E., & Carr, T. H. (2004). More on the fragility of performance: Choking under pressure in mathematical problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133, 584-600. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L. & Carr, T. H. (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 701-725. (pdf)
Introducing a negative stereotype about a social group in a particular domain can reduce the quality of task performance exhibited by group members. For instance, when negative group stereotypes are activated in performance situations, African-Americans perform more poorly on cognitive tasks reputed to assess intelligence, women perform more poorly on math problems for which they have been told gender differences exist, and Whites perform more poorly on athletic tasks that purportedly are diagnostic of athletic ability rather than athletic intelligence. Although stereotype threat has been repeatedly demonstrated, far less is known about how its effects are realized. Our research examines the causal mechanisms governing such unwanted performance decrements using the above mentioned hypotheses concerning skill failure as a framework. This work is not only important in terms of gaining a fuller theoretical understanding of stereotype threat, but it also sheds light on the development of training regimens and performance strategies designed to alleviate less-than-optimal performances.
Select Relevant Publications:
Rydell, B.J., McConnell, A.R., & Beilock, S.L. (2009). Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 949-966. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L., Rydell, R. J., & McConnell, A. R. (2007). Stereotype threat and working memory: Mechanisms, alleviation, and spill over. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 256-276. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L., & Feltz, D. L. (2006). Self efficacy and expertise. In N. Hagemann, M. Tietjens, & B. Strauss (Eds.), The psychology of peak performance in sports (pp. 156-174). Götteingen, Germany: Hogrefe Publishers.
Beilock, S. L., Jellison, W. A., Rydell, R. J., McConnell, A. R., & Carr, T. H (2006). On the causal mechanisms of stereotype threat: Can skills that don't rely heavily on working memory still be threatened? Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1059-1071. (pdf)
Beilock, S. L. & McConnell, A. R. (2004). Stereotype threat and sport: Can athletic performance be threatened? Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26, 597-609. (pdf)