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Worried About Performing Well Under Stress? Write It Out

Ten minutes of writing boosts high-stakes performance.

Whether it's sitting for a big exam, getting up in front of an audience to give a speech, or even interviewing for a job, worries about failing can derail our performance and prevent us from operating at our best. New research shows, however, that simply writing about your thoughts and feelings immediately before a high-stress event can serve to boost performance when it matters most.

In a study my Ph.D. student, Gerardo Ramirez, and I published last week in the journal Science, we explored how a simple writing exercise changes performance in the exam room—especially for students who become habitually anxious in testing situations.

Sitting for an important exam leads to worries about the situation and its consequences. These worries are problematic because they deplete a part of the brain's processing power known as working memory, which is critical to successfully computing answers to difficult test questions. Working memory is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad that allows people to "work" with information relevant to the task at hand. When worries creep up, the working memory people normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. People lose the brainpower necessary to excel.

Other research has shown that expressive writing, in which people repeatedly write about a traumatic or emotional experience over several weeks or months, is an effective technique for decreasing worries in clinically depressed individuals. We reasoned that students could benefit from writing in the classroom as well.

We began by asking college students to take two short math tests. On the first test, students were told simply to do their best. Before the second test, however, we drove up the pressure using a combination of financial incentives, peer pressure, and social evaluation. Essentially students were told that they could earn money for acing the test, but that their performance would not only dictate whether they won money, but whether other students would walk away with money as well. Everyone was depending on them.

Half of the students then received 10 minutes to write expressively about their feelings about the upcoming test (expressive writing group) and the other half was told to sit quietly (control group).

While the control group "choked under pressure," showing a 12% math accuracy drop from the first test to the second, those students who expressed their thoughts before the pressure-filled test did not—actually improving by about 5% from the low-stakes situation. In another experiment, we showed that it wasn't just the act of writing that inoculated students against choking; rather, specifically writing about test-related thoughts and feelings that helped.

We then took our writing exercise into the classroom. Roughly six weeks before ninth-graders took the first final exam of their high-school career, we measured student's test anxiety—the degree to which they reported becoming habitually anxious in exam situations. Then, immediately before their final exams, once students were seated and about to begin the test, they were given envelopes with directions to either write about their feelings about the upcoming test, or to think about topics that wouldn't be covered on the exam.

When we looked at students' final exam grades, we found something pretty striking. For those students who didn't write (our control group), there was a strong relation between test anxiety and final exam performance. Meaning that the higher a student's anxiety about taking tests, the worse he or she performed—even when accounting for grades throughout the school year.

However, for those students given the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the upcoming test, the relation between test anxiety and exam performance was essentially non-existent. Highly test anxious students performed just as well as their less anxious classmates. Indeed, students who wrote down their thoughts beforehand received an average grade of B+, compared with those who didn't write, who received an average grade of B-.

Why does such a simple writing exercise have such a big impact? We think the answer has to do with the content of the writing itself. Writing reduces people's tendency to ruminate because it provides them with an opportunity to express their concerns. Expressing concerns gives people some insight into the source of their stress, allowing them to reexamine the situation such that the tendency to worry during the actual pressure-filled situation decreases.

So, when you are getting ready to take that important test, spending a few minutes writing about your worries—something that takes neither a lot of time, resources, nor effort to accomplish—might be just what you need to ensure that you sail, rather than fail, when the pressure is on. And, indeed, given that worries have been shown to derail performance in a variety of pressure-filled situations—from pitching to a client to interviewing for that dream job—writing may an effective way to boost performance in all sorts of activities where failing is just not an option.

For more ways to boost performance under pressure, check out my new book Choke.

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Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331, 211-213.

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