One of the best-replicated effects in psychological research, choking
under pressure, refers to situations where highly skilled people perform poorly
in areas where the rewards for ideal performance are high (Baumeister, 1984). This
effect has been documented across different domains, including cognitive assessments
(Sattizahn, Moser & Beilock, 2016) and sporting contexts (Wells &
Skowronski, 2012). The costs of poor performance can be detrimental. For example,
students who perform poorly on standardized exams may be denied entry into a four-year
university and athletes who perform poorly in a championship game may find themselves
on the losing side (Baumeister & Showers, 1986). Even though most research has
focused on the cognitive processes involved in skill acquisition, recent research
has analyzed the processes responsible for why skilled people perform poorly in
high-stakes situations (Beilock & Carr, 2005).

 

Two
sets of theories have been proposed to explain the choking under pressure
effect: Explicit-monitoring theories and distraction theories (Beilock, Kulp,
Holt & Carr, 2004). Proponents of explicit-monitoring theories argue that
pressure raises anxiety about optimal performance, leading for people to attend
to the specific step-by-step procedures involved in task completion (Beilock
& Carr, 2005). According to Beilock and Carr (2001), when people exert
conscious control over the steps required to complete a task, automated
processes involved in higher-level skills that run outside of working memory
are disrupted, resulting in poor performance for skilled people in high-pressure situations. On the contrary,
proponents of distraction theories argue that pressure disrupts working memory
because people focus on task-irrelevant cues such as worrying about optimal
performance, while simultaneously performing their task (Markman, Maddox &
Worthy, 2006). According to Lewis and Linder (1997), task-irrelevant cues will
compete with the conscious control mechanisms involved in task completion,
resulting in a dual-task environment that leads to poor performance for skilled
people in high-pressure situations.

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