Flocking to the Familiar under Stress

Falling back on familiar habits negatively affects performance under pressure

Posted Jun 15, 2011

We  constantly have to make decisions when we are stressed out. Whether it's choosing between the healthy dinner option or the unhealthy comfort food when deciding what to eat after a long day at the office or which route to take to work when we are running late to a meeting, we make decisions under duress throughout the day. So, what predicts the choices we make?

As it happens, when under pressure, we often desire what is familiar - even when we know that choosing the familiar path might aggravate rather than ameliorate the stress. Familiarity signals safety which is appealing in stressful situations. Yet, this familiarity can overshadow the fact that the choices we make may increase the pressure we feel.

Take your drive to work as an example. Imagine that you drive the same route to work every day - a route that is on an often congested highway. You do know of another potentially quicker route that involves side streets, but you have only taken it a couple of times. As it happens, when you are running late to an important meeting, the increased time pressure will make you more likely to choose the familiar (but longer) route. We flock to the familiar under pressure, which can backfire, making us more rather than less stressed out.

Researchers at Stanford University demonstrated this stress-induced familiarity bias in a paper published a few months ago in the journal Psychological Science. People were told that they would be testing two educational software puzzles under development by different start-up companies.

The first puzzle, called Math Tower, was specifically designed to be quite difficult. People had to perform a series of linked together arithmetic problems where the answer to one problem served as the operand for a subsequent problem. Errors were inevitable and, because the problems were linked, when an error was made, it meant that folks had to start over from the beginning.

In the second puzzle, people had to complete word problems (similar to verbal analogies on the SAT) for which correct answers would earn them points towards a cash prize. People could choose between one of two word puzzles to work on - the first of which would likely earn them less points than the second. Interestingly, the word puzzle for which people could potentially earn fewer points looked really similar to the Math Tower puzzle (in terms of logo, formatting, manufacturer information) they had just completed.

What the researchers found was that, when a large cash prize was offered for puzzle completion, thereby ratcheting up the stress to perform well, people were more likely to choose the familiar puzzle - even though it would likely earn them fewer points and make it harder for them to actually win the money. This choice ran directly counter to the puzzle people chose when neither one featured logos/formatting that was similar to the Math Tower they had worked on before. Here, people were more likely to choose the puzzle with the most earning potential - the puzzle most likely to get them to their goal. In sum, under pressure, when a familiar option was available, people took it...despite the fact that it was obviously the worst option of the two.

As I have blogged about on a number of occasions, when the stress is on, our performance on activities ranging from hitting a golf ball to taking the SAT to pitching to a client can falter. This new research suggests that stress not only carries negative implications for how we perform, but for the activities we choose to take on. As it happens, flocking to the familiar under pressure can backfire, creating more stress than we had in the first place.

For more on the impact of stress and how to succeed when it matters most, check out my book Choke!

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Litt, A. et al. (2011). Pressure and Perverse Flights to Familiarity. Psychological Science.