Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Choking and Excelling under Pressure in Experienced Classifiers

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Choking and Excelling under Pressure in Experienced Classifiers

Article excerpt

We extend previous work examining the effects of pressure on category learning to the effects of pressure on categorization performance in highly trained individuals. After extensive training on either a rule-based or an information-integration classification task, half of the participants performed the same task on a fifth day while under pressure to earn a monetary bonus ($50) for themselves and a partner. Performance of this group was compared with that of a low-pressure control group who performed without the pressure manipulation. Pressure caused performance decrements both for experienced classifiers performing rule-based tasks and for those performing information-integration tasks, as compared with control groups. These results contrast with those of previous research, where inexperienced classifiers choked on rule-based tasks but excelled on information-integration tasks. An additional "superpressure" block of trials was given at the end of the fifth session. Under this type of pressure, participants performing an information-integration task outperformed those performing rule-based tasks. Implications for theories of choking under pressure are discussed.

The anecdotal phenomenon of choking under pressure has been the subject of much laboratory research (e.g., Beilock & Carr, 2005; Beilock, Kulp, Holt, & Carr, 2004; Markman, Maddox, & Worthy, 2006; Masters, 1992). Choking under pressure occurs when someone underperforms on a task, relative to their normal performance, because of an acute stressor. Research has focused on two different explanations for choking. The distraction theory, which has some similarity to processing efficiency theory (e.g., Eysenck & Calvo, 1992), proposes that pressure leads to a decrease in available working memory (WM) resources, which in turn has a negative impact on the performance of cognitively demanding tasks (Wine, 1971). Alternatively, the explicit monitoring theory, which has some similarity to reinvestment theory (see, e.g., Masters & Maxwell, 2008), proposes that pressure causes increased attention to skill-focused processes, which disrupts the performance of proceduralized tasks (Baumeister, 1984).

We test these accounts using highly trained participants. To place this work in context, we first discuss previous research exploring the distraction and explicit monitoring theories. Then we present data from a study in which a total of 69 participants first received over 2,500 trials of classification learning across four separate training sessions, and were then put under pressure in a fifth experimental session.

Previous Research on Distraction and Monitoring

There is evidence supporting both the distraction and monitoring theories of choking under pressure. Studies supporting the distraction theory often come from WMintensive tasks. For example, Markman et al. (2006) studied category-learning tasks. Participants performed either a rule-based task, which has been shown to recruit WM resources (Ashby, Alfonso-Reese, Turken, & Waldron, 1998; Maddox & Ashby, 2004; Maddox, Filoteo, Hejl, & Ing, 2004; Zeithamova & Maddox, 2006), or an information- integration task, which has been shown to recruit a procedural-based learning system that is not WM demanding (Ashby et al., 1998; DeCaro, Thomas, & Beilock, 2008; Maddox & Ashby, 2004; Maddox, Ashby, & Bohil, 2003). In accordance with the distraction theory, novice participants choked while performing the rulebased task under pressure, but they excelled while performing the information-integration task under pressure.

Further support for the distraction theory comes from Beilock and Carr (2005), who showed that performance of participants with high WM capacity declined more under pressure than did performance of those with low WM capacity. Additional studies using cognitively demanding tasks, such as math problems, also support the distraction theory (e.g. …

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