Choke

What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

The Upside of Stress

For some activities, it actually pays to be stressed out.

It likely comes as no surprise that the stressful situations you encounter at work - say speaking in front of others or dealing with demanding clients - can have a negative impact on your ability to think and reason on your feet.

Of course, how you interpret these stressful situations matters a lot. If you construe a stressful situation as a challenge, you tend to perform better under the pressure than if you view the same situation as a threat. Admittedly, however, looking at potentially stressful situations from a positive, adaptive vantage point is easier said than done. That's why, you might be interested to hear about some new research showing that even when you construe a situation as threatening, you can perform well...at least in some activities.

In a study published last week in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, psychologists Shawn Ell, Brandon Cosley, and Shannon McCoy put people through a series of stress-inducing situations - ranging from public speaking to doing speeded mental arithmetic out loud in front of others. The researchers then asked people to perform one of two different categorization tasks.

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In the first task (a.k.a., the Rule Task), people saw a circle filled with fuzzy dark and light bars on a computer screen. The goal was to determine if a circle belonged in Category A or B. To do this, people had to systematically hypothesize and test various rules that might determine which category a circle belonged to (e.g., skinny bars, Category A; thin bars, Category B). In the second task (a.k.a. the Gist Task), people again saw the same circles, but this time there wasn't one simple rule that could be used to put a circle in a category - too many different things were used to determine category membership. Instead, people had to just go with their gut and learn the gist of what made one circle more appropriate for Category A and another for Category B.

Even thought the goal in both tasks was the same (to determine whether a circle presented on a computer screen belonged to Category A or Category B), these categorization tasks are interesting because, as I have blogged about before, they are thought to rely on different parts of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that houses our working memory - that mental scratchpad that allows us to systematically think and reason through the information we encounter - plays a big role in performing the Rule Task. The Gist Task instead runs largely outside of consciousness and benefits from less attention to the details. If people get lost in the details of each circle, they can't get the big picture of the Gist Task.

What the researchers found was that the more people construed the stressful situation they were under in a negative way - as measured by their own self reports, heart rate, etc. - the worse they performed on the Rule task but the better they did on the Gist Task. In other words, having a negative reaction to a stressful situation was actually beneficial to performance on the task where looking for the bigger picture is better. Why?

The explanation has to do with what threatening situations do to the brain. Essentially, negative stressors have been shown to derail the prefrontal cortex. Because of this, the more threatened people were, they better they did on the Gist Task where getting the answer right depends on dampening detail oriented thinking and reasoning so you can go with our gut. Sometime, stress has its benefits.

We often encounter activities that are similar to the Gist task, were thinking "outside the box" or looking beyond the details for the big picture is important. This new research suggests that it's exactly these sorts of activities that you want to gravitate toward when you are stressed. Knowing what activities you can and can't tackle successfully when the pressure is on is one key to optimizing your performance no matter what comes your way.

For more on how stress impacts performance and what we can do to perform at our best, check out my new book Choke!

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Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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