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Under pressure

November 23rd, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Did somebody ever tell you not to be afraid of pressure because after all pressure is what turns coal into a diamond? This saying encourages us to embrace new challenges and to see pressure as a possibility to grow. In other words, if we manage stress well, we can transform ourselves from a lump of coal into a precious diamond. Accordingly, having a certain amount of pressure in our lives can help us to excel. However, if the pressure becomes too much, we freeze and are overwhelmed by a task.

For example, my math teacher in 5th grade would choose a student at the beginning of each class to perform calculations on the black board. I have never been a math genius, but having the whole class watching me while my intimidating teacher kept throwing fractions at me completely threw me off. I was literally choking under pressure. Choking under pressure means that I was performing worse than I could have if nobody would have watched me. Instead, all my attentional resources were allocated towards math task-irrelevant thoughts like: what will my classmates think about me, are they making fun of me, why is my teacher so mean, and I’m going to fail my next math exam? There were simply no more attentional resources left for me to focus on solving the equations.

As mentioned above, choking under pressure usually happens as a consequence when people around pay attention to whatever task you are performing.  Monitoring pressure is a phenomenon that performance, on average, is worse in a context of being watched and evaluated by others. A recent study by Belletier et al. (2015) showed first evidence that monitoring pressure leads to a decrease in executive attention for individuals with higher working memory in comparison to individuals with lower working memory. Executive attention refers to the ability to focus on relevant information in the environment while blocking out other irrelevant information. For example, instead of worrying about what my classmates thought of me, I could have tried to paid attention to solving the math problems at the blackboard.

In order to master cognitive tasks successfully, we need to have something in place that helps us navigate multiple tasks at once. The active system that makes this possible is called working memory. The central executive acts as a supervisory system. Like a control tower, the central executive is in charge of allocating resources and attention, managing retrieval of information, and is involved in decision-making processes. If you are interested in learning more about the other three components of working memory, I strongly recommend you to check out Samantha’s blog on working memory and music. For the purpose of this study, the function of the central executive is the most crucial. To summarize, working memory and the flow of information between its different components is what allows us to perform complicated tasks like driving a car on a busy road. In other words, without working memory, we would not be able to navigate the world around us.

Research has shown that working memory capacity (WMC) tends to vary across individuals. Differences in WMC can be measured using complex span tasks. Those tasks require participants to hold on to two or more units of information while reading aloud, making rehearsal difficult.  The first step in Belletier et al. (2015) study was therefore to measure the working memory capacity of their participants. Check out Emily’s blog which talks about choking under pressure amongst athletes if you are interested in learning more about choking.

Belletier et al. (2015) used a version of the Classical Reading Span Task (RSPAN) in which participants were asked to read aloud a sentence and decide immediately afterwards whether the sentence was meaningful or meaningless. They also read aloud a letter, which they were asked to remember.

Here’s an example of how the RSPAN would appear on the computer screen:
We were fifty lawns out at sea before we lost sight of land. ? X

After a series of sentences, participants were asked to write down the correct sequence of letters. According to how participants scored on the RSPAN, they were assigned as having an either high or low WMC. Individuals with higher working memory were better at recalling the correct order of letters due to better executive control.

The next step was to measure participants’ executive control by using a standard Simon task. Participants were instructed to press a button on the right-hand side when a red light appeared and a button on the left-hand side when a green light appeared. Usually people with high WMC are assumed to have better executive control, which is also supported by Belletier et al. (2015) data on high WMC participants in the absence of an evaluative audience (alone or peer presence condition).

Illustration of the Simon task (taken from Belletier et al., 2015)

Illustration of the Simon task (taken from Belletier et al., 2015)

The reaction time for so-called compatible trials (stimuli occur on the same side as response button) is usually faster and results in lower error rates than for incompatible trials (stimuli occur on the opposite side as response button). Even though participants were told to ignore the location of the lights, their response time for incompatible trials is more effortful and time-consuming because they require more attentional control in order to inhibit the automatic response to press the button on the same side as the light appears (symbolized by the bold arrows in the figure above). The difference in performance between the incompatible and compatible trials is called the Simon effect. Check out Katherine’s blog on the Stroop task, which is another executive control test in case you are interested in learning more about automatic versus controlled processes.

To illustrate the Simon effect in a more real life situation, imagine yourself driving a car. Driving forward is pretty easy: you can simply turn the steering wheel the direction you want to go (comparable to a compatible trial in the Simon task). But driving in reverse is much trickier because the back wheels now determine the direction of travel while you still steer with the front wheels (incompatible trial). This requires an extra step of processing before the car actually does what you want it to do when driving backwards.

Why it’s harder to drive backwards.

After completing the first Simon task, participants were asked to return to the lab 48 hours later. Before doing a second Simon task, they were randomly assigned one of three social presence conditions in order to manipulate different levels of monitoring pressure.

Alone condition Like during the first trial, participants performed the second Simon task alone in a room.
Peer presence Participants performed the task with a confederate in the room due to “technical problems”. The confederate was seated on the opposite side and watched the participants approximately 60% of the time.
Experimenter presence The experimenter sat opposite to the participants and watched them 60% of the time.

As expected, during the first Simon task, individuals with high working memory capacity showed a smaller Simon effect. However, the second Simon task performance of the same individuals was significantly worst in the presence of an experimenter because this impaired their executive control. The interesting question is how come? Why are individuals with higher WMC more likely to choke under monitoring pressure?

Individuals with high working memory might have enough resources available to attend the Simon task and the presence of the experimenter. In comparison, individuals with lower WMC might simply not have enough resources available because the Simon task requires all their attention, Therefore, they don’t really worry about what the experimenter is doing in the same room. Being able to attend both, the Simon task and the presence of the experimenter, might lead to a worst result in performance to the task at hand. The pressure to perform well might take too much executive attention away from the Simon task, resulting in poor performance.

To conclude, there are two main take away points that we learn from Belletier et al. (2015) study:

  1. First of all, it is in a way comforting to know that the best people choke under pressure! High working memory and intelligence usually correlate because individuals with higher WMC are able to ignore or inhibit irrelevant information, leaving them with more attentional resources for the relevant task. However, when being watched by an evaluative audience individuals’ ability to shift part of their attention towards the observing audience backfires. As a result, they are more likely to choke under pressure.
  2. Furthermore, the findings of this study have practical implications on how to conduct research in experimental psychology. If being watched by an experimenter leads individuals with higher WMC to perform poorer on tasks, then even small, unintended behavioral differences of the experimenter towards his or her participants might change the outcome of an experiment.

So again why is Belletier et al. (2015) study interesting for us? Well, it showed us that people with WMC are the once who freeze when being evaluated by an audience. It also shows us that there is a difference between who the audience is. An evaluating audience like an experimenter or teacher is more likely to cause choking, while a non-evaluating audience like family members or friends are less likely to induce monitor pressure. This helps us because if we know the reason why we are nervous we can try to change it. The next time you feel pressure when your teacher calls on you to solve an math equation, take a deep breath, and try to not label the pressure you might experience as a bad thing. Instead, approach it in a positive way. After all, pressure is what makes diamonds.

To read the original paper by Belletier et al. (2015), click here.



Belletier, C., Davranche, K., Tellier, I. S., Dumas, F., Vidal, F., Hasbroucq, T., & Huguet, P. (2015). Choking under monitoring pressure: Being watched by the experimenter reduces executive attention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,22(5), 1410-1416. doi:10.3758/s13423-015-0804-9

McBride, D. M. & Cutting, J. C. (2016). Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Process, and Methodology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

  1. December 8th, 2015 at 00:33 | #1

    I really enjoyed reading this post, like you said, it is great to know the high WMC individuals don’t always do the best. It was interesting that the individuals with high WMC choked on the Simon task when in the presence of the experimenter when those with low WMC did not. This seems in direct opposition to the results of this study by Bijleveld and Veling (2014) that was written about in the blog post “The Mind of a Champion”. In that study, the tennis players with greater WMC did better on the decisive sets and thus prevented choking. It results also contradicted the Conway et al. (2001) study on the cocktail party effect. That study’s conclusion was that the low WMC participants had a hard time blocking out distracting information not that the high WMC participants could monitor both messages. The results of the Conway et al. study would suggest that in the Simon task, the high WMC participants should have done better in the presence of the experimenter than the participants with low WMC did because they could inhibit the distracting person and stay on task. Yet this was not the case. In Belletier et al. (2015), the exact opposite happened and the conclusion was that the high WMC individuals choked because they had enough resources to attend to the Simon task and the experimenter. This just shows how complicated attention and working memory are. In some cases you get some results, and in others different results. Now we just need to find out what is causing the difference. Is it the type of test used? The situation? Something else?

  2. Emily Moslener
    December 10th, 2015 at 10:45 | #2

    This post was really interesting to read because as mentioned in the previous comment, the article that I wrote about came to the opposite conclusion than this article did. In the study done by Bijleveld and Veling (2014), they looked at working memory capacity in tennis players by using the AOSPAN task. Also in the article, they looked at the sensitivity of dopamine circuits by using the BART test. This After about 35 tennis players completed both of these tests, the experimenters looked at each player’s performance in both high and low pressure matches. They came to a conclusion that sensitivity to dopamine circuits has a higher impact on performance in pressure situations than working memory capacity (but WMC still has an impact). Athletes who are more sensitive to dopamine are more likely to crack under pressure than athletes who are less sensitive to dopamine.
    I am really curious as to why both of these experiments came up with different results. It could be because each of the experiments used different methods to test working memory. It could also be because in the article that I read, the sample size was much smaller than in this article, and because of this, the accuracy could be compromised.

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