10 Reasons Why We Choke Under Pressure

What lies beneath performance anxiety?

Posted Dec 02, 2020

Choking under pressure describes a situation in which individuals perform worse when put under pressure (Baumeister, 1984). Performance anxiety affects individuals in a range of events, such as test-taking, job interviews, public speaking, and music performance. Performance anxiety threatens self-confidence at the moment of greatest importance (Kenny, 2011).

Performance anxiety is not just about performance. The anxiety begins long before the person walks into the spotlight. One’s psychological history and attitudes about life events are rooted in performance anxiety (Nagel, 2017). In short, performance anxiety reflects the uniqueness of each person’s mind.

1. The sweet spot for stress. An influential study conducted by two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, demonstrated that optimal performance is associated with a moderate level of stress. That is, when levels of stress are too low (boredom) and when levels of stress are too high (anxiety or fear) performance is likely to suffer. Anxious thoughts interfere with concentration and impair performance.

2. Social anxiety. Performance anxiety can be considered a specific type of social anxiety. Social anxiety is characterized by a fear of negative evaluation, heightened self-awareness, and avoidance of social situations. For a socially anxious person, any situation in which he or she is being judged can serve as a potential trigger (Barlow, 2002).

3. Trait anxiety. Trait anxiety refers to a relatively stable and enduring tendency to interpret certain situations as being threatening, which makes the individual feel habitually worried. These individuals have a low threshold for stress tolerance.

4. Perfectionism. Perfectionism is a personality trait that involves habitually establishing unrealistic standards. These individuals tend to have rigid ideas regarding what constitutes success and failure (e.g., one mistake will ruin my whole performance). Perfectionistic strivings can trigger a cascade of anxieties.

5. Fear of exposure. The mere presence of an audience can be enough to turn performance into an anxiety-enhancing activity. An audience communicates expectations to the performer, and the pressure to fulfill these expectations could trigger anticipated or actual anxiety. Crowd size or the presence of highly respected peers also contribute to the pressure.

6. The pressure to perform well. Performance anxiety is tied to the fear of judgment and consequence. When the stakes are high, the biggest fear for any performer is that they will choke (Yu, 2015).

7. Self-focused attention. A greater self-focus due to higher concentration can disrupt the automatic performance of a skill. Consequently, individuals consciously monitor and control a skill they would perform automatically in non-pressure situations. As Beilock (2011) noted, actively worrying about screwing up makes you more likely to screw up.

8. Projecting insecurity. The audience, with its ability to praise or reject the performance, can be perceived as parents or as significant others. For example, a person who has grown up in a dysfunctional family may fear audience disapproval while wishing for love and admiration. Thus, earlier traumatizing experiences are repeated in performance (McWilliam, 1994).

9. Performance as a major basis of self-esteem. Aspiring and professional artists or musicians are highly invested in their identities as artists/musicians and they find it difficult to separate their self-esteem from their artistic capability. If they fail as performing artists, they also fail as people. Consequently, they will feel greater pressure to succeed (or avoid failure) to validate themselves.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
Source: Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

10. Task difficulty. The level of anxiety experienced is directly proportional to the difficulty and complexity of the task. Performance anxiety can increase when the level of requirement and technical demand exceeds the capacity of the performer. A big part of fear reduction is the proper preparation and development of skills.

In sum, the anxiety to perform well causes individuals to shift their focus of attention from task-relevant information to distracting stimuli, such as worries about the consequences. Thus, mental preparation is as crucial as technical mastery to enhance one’s capacity to manage anxiety comfortably. Professor Kenny (2011) says optimal performance requires one to be able to shift attention away from self and audience and direct it toward the work being performed.


Barlow, D. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: the nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: Self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 610–620.

Beilock, S. (2010). Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. New York, NY: Free Press.

Kenny DT. (2011).  The psychology of music performance anxiety. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McWilliams N (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process (2nd edition). New York, Guilford.

Nagel Julie (2017). Managing Stage Fright. Oxford University press

Yu, R. (2015). Choking under pressure: the neuropsychological mechanisms of incentive-induced performance decrements. Front. Behav. Neurosci.9:19.