13th of March 2015

Choke Book Notes: The Science of Performing Under Pressure

Choke by Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Choke: to perform poorly in response to the perceived stress of a situation

“People choke under pressure because they worry about the situation, what others will think, what they will lose if they fail, and whether they can do this.”
The Main Point Of This Book

This book applies recent brain science research to break down the internal and external causes of choking, why it happens, and the strategies and exercises you can do to prevent or “cure” it. You should read this book if you do well in low-stakes situations, but choke under pressure in high-stakes situations, even though the same skills and activities are performed in both places.
About The Author

Sian Beilock is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind “choking under pressure” and the many brain and body factors influencing performance.

She references a ton of studies in this book (there are over 175 notes), including many she has done in her Human Performance Lab, which focuses on test-taking and sports performance.

The Book Notes

This book dives into the inner workings of the brain and focuses on when people choke on tests, competitions, and presentations. The same lessons and exercises can easily be applied to your social skills and dating life. We’ll look at 3 important topics here:

1. What is choking, why we do it, and how it works in the brain
2. First, change the way you think about yourself and the problem
3. How not to choke when talking to women or on a date


What Is Choking, Why We Do It, And How It Works In The Brain

Choking is any kind of worrying, over-thinking, or over-controlling that causes you to fuck up in high-pressure settings when you are usually great at those same things in low-pressure settings. It is poor performance in response to the perceived stress of a situation.

“People choke under pressure because they worry about the situation, what others will think, what they will lose if they fail, and whether they can do this.”

When pressure-filled situations create an inner monologue of worries that taps brainpower, it is more difficult to perform activities that rely on those same brain resources. Choking diverts your brainpower by causing The Stress Spillover Effect, a “flight” stress response in the right prefrontal cortex and your brain shifts blood there. It takes time to return to normal. As a result, your cognitive horsepower is stunted even after the pressure-filled situation ends.

Overthinking, paralysis by analysis, here is an attempt to control performance instead of letting it flow. This over-controlling (paying more focused attention) is necessary when first learning but hurts the performance of an expert who needs to just do it and not think about it.

“As you gain skills, the brain (at least the pre-frontal cortex) works less hard to support them … As learning progresses, there is a reduction in neural activity in working-memory brain areas once needed to control step-by-step execution.”

“Overall, the weight of evidence [says that] highly self-conscious people are more prone to choke under pressure.” The higher a person scores (the more ‘yes’ answers) on these statements, the more likely he or she is to choke.

First, Change The Way You Think About Yourself And The Problem

Training For Success Requires a Growth Mindset

Tons of research shows that “just as lifting weights helps to develop your bicep muscles, practice shapes your brain.”

Dating and attracting women are skills just like anything else. Genetics do help but the best route to success is regularly practicing skills (flirting, having fun, conversation, sex, whatever) which programs your brain to learn and improve at any skill. Your crap abilities today are not fixed and can improve with time and effort.

Adhere to a growth mindset and practice, practice, practice.

Stereotypes and Labels Are Powerful

Be careful who you hang out with and who you listen to. Stereotypes and labels that others put on you have real psychological consequences.

Labels can become self-fulfilling, even if they are bullshit and not true at all. Lots of research shows that negative stereotypes about your sex or race – girls can’t do math, blacks are not smart, whites can’t jump – is enough to cause self-doubt for these groups in those activities, use up critical brain resources, and result in choking and lower performance.

The takeaway here is to not believe in negative stereotypes about your race or physical traits in dating. If you are insecure about something, write out all the other great things about yourself before you go on a date.

[Mating Grounds note: The labels and words you use to describe yourself can also become self-fulfilling prophecies. When you say things like:

  • “I suck at talking to girls.”
  • “I’m bad in social situations.”
  • “I’m not good looking enough.”
  • “I’m lazy [or an introvert, or ugly, or whatever.”

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because your actions will follow those beliefs, whether or not they are objectively true.]

The 9 Top Choking Cures

As noted above, “Overall, the weight of evidence [says that] highly self-conscious people are more prone to choke under pressure.” The goal then is to be less self-conscious and self-critical. If you already have decent skills and can perform well in low-pressure situations, the cure is to get out of your own head and let your subconscious take over when in high-pressure situations where those same skills are needed.

There are 20+ strategies and exercises outlined in the book. Here we will look at the ones that most apply to dating and social skills.

The Pregame

1. Practice under pressure.

Practicing under light stress is a form of exposure therapy that decreases choking as you become accustomed to pressure-filled situations. Start with low-pressure situations and gradually build up, day by day, to higher pressure situations. Practicing under the exact conditions you will face in a do-or-die situation is exactly what is needed to perform your best when the stress is on. Get used to the pressure so it is not something you fear.

2. Write about your worries.

“New research out of [the author’s] Human Performance Laboratory shows that disclosing, getting something ‘off your chest,’ does more than just make you feel better: it can change the workings of your brain when the pressure is on and result in better test performance.”

Writing about worries and stressful events in your life, even for just 20 minutes every week, can help increase working-memory and may prevent other parts of your life (work or family problems) from creeping in and distracting you under stress. Writing for 10 minutes about your worries before a date or social situation can help thwart the anxieties and self-doubt that will often emerge.

“When a worrisome thought arises, acknowledge it, identify and write it down, and then let go of it.”

3. Think about yourself differently.

Reaffirm your self-worth.
Before a high-stakes situation (a blind first date) spend a couple of minutes writing about your many interests and activities. This writing can promote feelings of self-worth. Reaffirming yourself, especially when you question your abilities, can boost confidence and performance.

Map out your complexities.
Before going out, spend 5 minutes drawing a diagram of everything that makes you a multifaceted individual. This exercise can help to highlight that your performance that night doesn’t define you, which can in turn take some of the pressure off.

Think differently.
Think about yourself in ways that highlights your propensity for success. For example instead of thinking that you belong to a sex or racial group that is unfairly stereotyped to be bad at math, remind yourself instead that you have the tools to excel – maybe you are a college student at a prestigious university or you have done well in school in the past. Focus on your credentials to help turn a bad performance into a good one.

4. Meditate.

You can train your brain not to dwell on negative thoughts and instead recognize and then discard them. Meditation training can help you harness all of your cognitive horsepower for the task at hand.

It’s a daily practice that takes time, 5-15 minutes every day for 3 months, to see improvements.

[Mating Grounds note: We recommend reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris to find a simple meditation practice.]

5. Practice making a fool out of yourself, in a comedy, acting or improv class.

When you are put on the spot you will be less likely to worry about what might happen if you stumble, because you will have already experienced it.

During or After

6. Subtle mirroring.

This can help create positive affect and liking by putting you and your date’s brain on the same page.

7. Don’t dwell.

Take that past performance and change how you think about it. See your failures as a chance to learn how to perform better in the future.

8. Focus on the positive.

If you focus on the negative this can make you feel out of control and increase the likelihood that you will not work as hard to obtain future performance goals.

9. Think about the journey, not the outcome.

Being so focused on failing or the monumental goals you are trying to achieve may prevent you from making the small steps forward needed to succeed.
“Being good at what you do necessitates being able to perform well when it counts the most. Thus knowing what factors produce the highest levels of pressure, how to practice your skill so that you are ready for whatever comes your way, and understanding how to handle the pressure when it inevitably does arrive, can make all the difference between moving up and moving on.”

If you decide to buy the book, please buy through this link, we get a small kickback that helps us keep the lights on around here and the information we have will continue to be free.

Choke: The Science of Performing Under Pressure

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