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Do Animals Choke Under Pressure?

Pressure can be insidious to performance. It can alter the link between perception and action, making us feel like foreigners in our own body. It can push us to panic, freak out, and catastrophize; where all we see and can think about is how everything is going wrong. We even have special names for the worst forms of pressure induced under performance: the yips, twisties, choking. It turns out, this isn’t just a human phenomenon. It affects other species too.

Researchers Adam Smoulder, Steven Chase, and colleagues set out to see if monkeys choke under pressure. They trained monkeys on a simple task to gain a reward: move their hand from the center of a screen to a reward spot in another part of the screen that would appear in one of 8 places. Monkeys had to move to this space rather quickly and accurately, and then hold their hand in that reward cue for long enough to ‘win.’ Overshooting or undershooting the reward spot led to a failure. Here’s the twist: the color or shape of the reward target indicated the size of the reward: small, medium, large, or a massive jackpot. Not too dissimilar from what we’d expect to see in ourselves, the monkeys felt the pressure. Performance resembled an inverted-U. There was a slow increase in performance as the reward grew, before a decrease, and in some cases, a falling off a cliff as the reward moved to large and jackpot. In other words, monkey’s also choke under pressure.

But that’s not the most interesting part. When further examining why this occurred, the researchers found that both the magnitude of the reward and the rarity of it mattered! Meaning, a frequent jackpot elicited less choking than a rare one. Whenever the jackpot was common, choking declined. Furthermore, the researchers were able to see the mechanisms by which pressure impacted performance. As pressure increased, the monkeys started being more cautious. Normally a monkey would quickly move their hand to the vicinity of the target, then slow down to focus on precision. As the reward increased, that initial quick thrust became shorter. They were more tuned in on precision from the start, taking longer to get to the target, and as a result would undershoot the target. This is opposite of what occurred when small rewards were offered. “On Small reward reaches, the animals appear to reach carelessly, overshooting more often, and they do not seem motivated to perform these movements as reliably as they are capable of. In contrast, on Jackpot reward reaches, animals come up short, seemingly because they are being overly cautious.”

This wasn’t the only way they ‘choked.’ Some monkeys resembled sprinters, false starting when the pressure was high. Others tended to drift before the proverbial gun went off. There were multiple behavioral paths towards under performing.

What are the implications for you and me?

Under-performance and choking under pressure is a pain to deal with. Too often, I see coaches and managers resort to the dreaded label of calling someone a “headcase.” Such a label often makes things worse, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy for the individual who is under performing. It also gives coaches permission to absolve any responsibility from themselves. It’s the shrug of the shoulders, an internal acknowledgement that “such and such athlete is a headcase. Nothing I can do.” It’s shirking of any responsibility.

What I hope this research on animals shows is that pressure impacting our perception and action is normal. It’s not just a human thing. It’s at least a primate thing, and probably more so an animal thing. It’s also probably a good thing. If we didn’t have stress to help us stay focused on something dangerous, or to heighten our senses to the world around us, our ancient ancestors on the savanna would have been in trouble.

Fortunately, through a wide variety of skills and tools— from stress inoculation to cognitive re-framing to mindfulness to emotional granulation— we can learn how to handle pressure better. In that regard, we have more tools at our disposal than our monkey friends to handle the stress of desperately trying to win whatever reward we are chasing.


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