Column: How we can prepare to make good decisions

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to


For the Valley News

Published: 03-07-2024 10:01 PM

In our daily lives we see some of the most talented people, experts in their fields, in academics, sports, entertainment and business, choke under pressure when the moment for performance comes for which they have prepared for days and days. Why do the brightest students sometime do poorly on standardized tests? Why do we flunk that interview or miss that golf putt when we should have had it in the bag? Why do we mess up when it matters the most, when the stakes are high?

This is how Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and Dartmouth’s new president, begins “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To,” the first book that we the members of the newly formed virtual Dartmouth Book Club, meeting quarterly and open to alumni and the community, have been exploring for some time. Based on multidisciplinary research, lab work, anecdotal evidence drawn from media and personal narratives, Beilock’s 2010 book is intimate, intellectually engaging and insightful. Most importantly it is a kind of how-to manual for sports coaches, business executives and parents of growing children. (For the purposes of this column, I am leaving aside how Beilock’s research might guide her own decision-making, which has been called into question in recent weeks.)

Explaining how the human mind works, Beilock asserts that higher-order brain power, located in the prefrontal cortex, performs functions like decision-making, problem-solving and regulating thoughts and behavior. It plays a critical role in the working memory, which temporarily holds and uses information for tasks like reasoning, comprehending and learning.

Under high performance pressure and anxiety, the higher-order brain in the prefrontal cortex becomes overactive and strangles learned automatic processes and skills, creating paralysis by too much thinking or over-analysis. I wonder: Does this explain the “To be or not to be” of Hamlet’s state of mind? Briefly, Beilock says:

·<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull> Choking is a phenomenon that afflicts professionals of all stripes and walks of life.

·<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull> Excessive brain activity hurts performance because it leads us to over-think what we’re doing. Body and mind work best when we don’t tinker with them.

·<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull> Worrying not only takes up valuable working memory, but it may also deplete our self-control resources, making it even harder to perform well under pressure.

·<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull> Trying to keep too many rules in mind leads us to lapse back into our prodigious memory abilities rather than the ordinary explicit memory we try to draw on under stress.

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·<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull> Feeling that you have little control over achieving a desired result leads to poorer performance and can eventually undermine your motivation to keep trying.

·<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull> What we think about an upcoming event can play a big role in how anxiety affects us in pressure situations.

·<sbull value="sbull"><text xmlns="urn:schemas-teradp-com:gn4tera"></text></sbull> Consider Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It.” Let the autopilot work.

Most importantly, Beilock discusses the “stereotype threat,” when simply being aware of a negative stereotype about one’s group or gender can negatively influence performance even for highly intelligent and skilled individuals. A stereotype activates anxiety and self-doubt, diverting attention away from the task at hand and toward proving the stereotype wrong. For example, the stereotype that girls are not capable of math-intensive tasks could make them more susceptible to choking when reminded of that stereotype. Or the “white men can’t jump” stereotype. Stereotypes can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where individuals unconsciously conform to the expectations associated with the stereotype, even if they don’t believe it themselves.

Beilock makes frequent reference to Lawrence Summers, who in 2005 as president of Harvard University said that women’s inadequate representation in science and mathematics was due to their innate differences in ability in these disciplines. Though he was fired as president for making such disparaging remarks, Summers continues as professor at the school. Such stereotypes mouthed by powerful people can have devastating choking effect upon aspiring young women.

Beilock offers several strategies to help people perform critical tasks under pressure, including: Staying focused on the task at hand rather than turning inward; developing routines for dealing with anxiety and learning how best to execute skills in pressure-filled situations; and visualizing and mentally rehearsing successful performances in high-pressure situations.

For long term mind-body balance, Beilock recommends a Buddhist form of meditation called Upasana. To re-orient yourself and regain control while under extreme stress, she says, try a mantra, a single word or short phrase that triggers a focused and confident state when you intone it during competition or performance — again a suggestion from the Buddhist tradition.

While “Choke” is about how the brain works under extreme anxiety and how not to break down under intense pressures at critical moments, for long-term mind-body equilibrium Beilock counsels, “Think about the journey, not the outcome. Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch or to succeed in other ways when facing life’s challenges.”

Narain Batra, author of several publications, is working on a new research project, Why We Need Superintelligence. He lives in Hartford.