Why We Choke

Remember back in the halcyon days of 2013, when the Maple Leafs were headed to the Stanley Cup finals and everyone was planning the parade? All they had to do was knock out the Boston Bruins (and a few other teams), whom they were leading four-one in the third, and leading four-two in two minutes remaining? Then, somehow, game seven went into overtime when the Bruins scored two quick goals before wrapping it up and drinking Torontonian tears on their way to meet the Rangers. So, what the hell happened?

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that a person’s propensity to choke under pressure is directly related to how much they’re willing to tolerate loss—but it’s a bit counterintuitive. Those with high loss aversion choked when they stood to gain a lot, but those with low loss aversion choked when they stood to lose a lot.

Twenty-six participants, twenty to thirty years old, participated in testing over two days. On the first day, they learned a brief video game that required good hand-eye coordination and control. The difficulty of the game was then modified such that each player was equally challenged.

On the second day, each participant put in an MRI machine, given a hundred bucks, and started playing rounds of the game. Before each round, they were told it would be worth different stakes, ranging from losing $100 to gaining $100. They were also told that at the end of three hundred rounds, only one round would be selected, randomly, and the results of that particular round would be used for calculating take-home pay. So, players had incentive to always do their best.

Also, prior to play, researchers calculated the participants loss aversion by giving them a test with 140 questions all related to coin toss gambles and how much stake they’d be willing to tolerate—for example, would you be willing to gamble on a coin toss that would have you gain $4 if you won, but lose $3 if you lost?

When playing the game, players with high loss aversion performed very well when told losses would result in a loss of $100. They played okay when given the chance to win $25 to $75, but the closer the got to rewards of $100, the more likely they were to choke.

By contrast, those with low loss aversion did fine with potential gains of $75 or potential losses of $75, but when it came to losses of $100, they choked.

When confronted with a task under pressure, it seems to matter a lot what you stand to lose and what you stand to gain—and when it comes to that equation, your personality matters a great deal.

Photo courtesy of flickr

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