Our performance is often linked to financial incentives. This is certainly true in the business world where employers regularly make bonuses dependent on workers’ performance or productivity. It’s also true in school and in sports, where acing an important test or hitting the game winning shot can lead to valuable college scholarships and other monetary rewards.

But, not everyone responds to financial incentives in the same way. While some thrive when the proverbial carrot is dangling out in front of them, others choke. Why? New research published last week in the journal Neuron provides some answers to this question.

A group of researchers at Cal Tech invited people to their lab to have their brains scanned while they performed a tricky exercise. Folks had to get a virtual ball to land on a particular place on a computer screen by moving their index finger, which had a tracking device attached to it. Prior to every attempt, people were offered between $0 and $100 for getting the ball to the target within the allotted time limit.

Here’s what the scientist found: When the reward for success was on the lower end of the spectrum (say, $10), people were – on average – very successful at the task. But, when the reward was high (say, $100 for getting the ball in the right place), most people choked under the pressure.

To figure out what was going on, the researchers next peered inside people’s heads. When people were simply told about the potential financial reward, activity in an area of the brain called the ventral striatum increased – the bigger the reward, the more active the ventral striatum was. This finding isn’t so surprising as researchers have known for some time that incentives can activate this area of the brain. But, what was striking was that once people actually started performing the ball task, activity in the same brain area decreased as the prize money increased. In other words, the bigger the prize, the less activity in the ventral striatum when people had to get down to business and actually try to earn the money. Why?

The idea is that when folks are initially told about all the money then can pocket for a good performance, their brain registers the potential gain (what they might win). But, once reality sets in and people had to actually get down to work, they instead start thinking about losing the money they might receive. When the potential payoff was high, people seemed to become overly concerned about not getting the money.

Interestingly, those people who tend to be most loss averse (those people who really hate losing something they have – or think they have) were the ones who showed the least activity in the ventral striatum when the stakes were high and the ones who choked the most. Perhaps these individuals were most concerned with losing what was on the line.

The take home? Fearing failure seems to make you more likely to choke. Instead, finding ways to turn your attention away from the possibility of failing (e.g., focusing instead on reasons you are likely to succeed) might help stabilize brain activity and lessen performance flubs under pressure.

For tips on getting rid of the negative, check out my book Choke!

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Chib, V. S. et al. (2012). Neural Mechanisms Underlying Paradoxical Performance for Monetary Incentives Are Driven by Loss Aversion. Neuron, 74, 582-594.

About the Author

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

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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