We’ve all been there: stepped up to do an important presentation or phone call and the words come bumbling out of our mouths in the wrong order or sometimes not at all. These situations can leave us embarrassed and cringing, even though everyone experiences them.
New research, from Georgia State University, gives you one less reason to stay up at night replaying an uncomfortable moment. They have shown that choking under pressure is actually built into our DNA.
The aim of their research was to look if other species felt pressure to perform in the same way humans do. “There are several different explanations for why humans might ‘choke’ or ‘thrive’ under pressure, but all of these explanations have traditionally considered this sensitivity to pressure to be a human-specific trait,” said the study’s lead author, Meg Sosnowski.
To investigate this, monkeys were given computerized tasks with differing levels of difficulty. When they got a question correct, this resulted in a reward. A question wrong, a timeout consequence on the screen.
The results of this experiment, published in Scientific Reports, varied depending on task difficulty, with more difficult tasks leading to higher pressure and consequently negatively impacted performance. It was also found that the stress hormone, cortisol, was found at much higher levels in monkeys that “choked” and performed worse.
Sosnowski continued, “Our new results provide the first evidence that other species also might be susceptible to this influence of pressure, and that our responses to that pressure are, in part, the result of individual variation in an evolutionarily common stress response.”
This research doesn’t just help you stop being so hard on yourself after that next suboptimal meeting, but also provides scientists with clues about the inner workings of our brain. Figuring out ingrained behaviors helps humans understand how we evolved.
Plus, once we grasp what is going on here a little more, preventative approaches can be taken to avoid performance deficits in humans and other species in the future. This could be handy for high-stress jobs like medical professionals, law enforcement, pilots, and more.
Source study: Scientific Reports – Endogenous cortisol correlates with performance under pressure on a working memory task in capuchin monkeys