Why Oh Why Do We Choke Under Pressure?

Updated: Apr 2, 2019

We’ve all been there; prepared, confident, and ready for our important moment - until we walk through the door and face our audience. Whether in a job interview, presentation, or any other such high-pressure situation, the dreaded feeling of unexpected dry mouth and the inability to form full sentences can creep in out of nowhere, leaving us to bomb an important moment that we had assumed we were fully ready for.

But why? Pyschologist Sian Leah Beilock, PhD, of Barnard College has dedicated much of her research to understanding why people 'choke' during high-pressure events.

Turns out, studies have found that certain traits are associated with choking more often. For one, if you are someone who tends to be loss-averse, i.e. an individual who will more likely gamble on a game with less odds of losing than on one with a big payout but more risk, you may not be as prepared for things in an important moment to not go well, and thus end up choking more easily.

Additionally, people with a stronger working memory - or people who can actively hold more in their mind at once - tend to choke more under pressure, perhaps due to the usual ability to depend on this strong working memory. When these innately intelligent individuals have their minds bogged down with worries, they lose the strong natural abilities they have come to rely on and have to use other strategies that they are not used to.

So what you can do to prevent choking next time you find yourself about to do something stressful?

Record your worries.

Beilock found that writing down your worries about what could go wrong for ten minutes before the event can help reduce anxiety. When you've released these worries through expressive writing, your brain can focus on other things.

Practice in a somewhat-stressful environment.

Practice, practice, and then practice again in an environment that is as stressful as you can reasonably conjure before the actual event - i.e. in front of a large group of friends, or without cue cards or any such crutches that you have been using while preparing.


Beilock's team also found that that after ten minutes of meditation training before a high-stakes test, individuals with no prior experience in meditation outperformed a group of individuals similar in all aspects except for a lack of meditation training.

If you want to learn more, you can watch Beilock's Ted Talk on the subject, or check out her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.