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How to Avoid Choking at Your Next Big Game

A team of neuroscientists tried to figure out why we choke and, in the process, stumbled on a practical tip.
Brick! (Photo: georgeparrilla/Flickr)

Brick! (Photo: georgeparrilla/Flickr)

Maybe you’ve been there. At the free throw line attempting the game-winning shot, or making a presentation in a key business meeting. It’s up to you to make the save or blow the win, and now the fear comes over you. You’re about to choke. Fear not, for neuroscientists may have a surprising solution: for those who feel the agony of defeat most strongly, embrace it and think about what you have to lose.

Scientists used to think choking was a figment of athletes’ imaginations, though more recent research suggests it’s a real thing. But buzzer shots weren’t what motivated researchers at the California Institute of Technology to study the effect.

"Overall, participants that were very loss averse performed better when acting to avoid a loss, and those that were of low loss aversion performed better when acting to obtain a gain."

“We’re interested in studying how incentives influence performance,” and what that can reveal about the limits of our decision-making, says neuroscientist Vikram Chib, now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University. Back at Caltech in 2012, Chib and colleagues looked at what happened when people attempted tricky Wii- or Xbox Kinect-style motor-skills tests for up to $100 in cash. Scanning each person’s brain using fMRI, the researchers found that decreasing activity in the ventral striatum, part of the brain’s reward-processing circuit, was a good indicator of the likelihood people were about to choke when the stakes were highest. And loss aversion—how much more strongly a person feels the sting of loss versus the pleasure of gains—was correlated with both the drop in ventral striatum activity and the likelihood of choking.

That got them wondering, Chib says. Reduced ventral striatum activation suggested that when it came time to do the motor-skills test, their subjects were thinking in terms of how much they might lose, despite the fact they had something to gain. What would happen if they re-framed the experiment in terms of losses rather than gains?

To find out, Chib, Shinsuke Shimojo, and John O’Doherty went back to the lab and this time gave 26 people $100 up front and told them they could keep it if they did well on the tests—otherwise, they’d lose money. That change flipped the results. While the most loss-averse people were most likely to choke originally, now it was the least loss-averse who choked, the authors write in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“Overall, participants that were very loss averse performed better when acting to avoid a loss, and those that were of low loss aversion performed better when acting to obtain a gain,” the team writes. Exactly why that happened is a bit unclear, Chib says. Their original hypothesis that ventral striatum activity would flip, just as behavior had, turned out to be false—in fact, that brain region responded just the same to prospective losses as it did to prospective gains. Chib says the team is working to understand that observation, but in the meantime, their results could be of practical value to those who choke. Tailoring a task’s frame as a gain or loss depending on a person’s loss aversion “could potentially mitigate decreases in performance for large incentives,” the authors write.