Knowing the right way to
handle stress in the classroom and on the sports field can make the difference between success and failure for the
millions of students going back to school this fall, new University of Chicago research shows.
that cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can either be tied to a student's poor performance on a
math test or contribute to success, depending on the frame of mind of the student going into the test," said
Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at UChicago and one of the nation's leading experts on poor performance by
otherwise talented people.
She is the author of "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting
it Right When You Have To," released this month in paperback.
In a new paper published in the current
issue of the journal "Emotion," Beilock and her colleagues explore the topic of performance failure in
math and show, for the first time, that there is a critical connection between working memory, math anxiety and salivary
Working memory is the mental reserve that people use to process information and figure out
solutions during tests. Math anxiety is fear or apprehension when just thinking about taking a math test. Cortisol
is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and associated with stress-related changes in the body; it is often referred to as
the "stress hormone."
Tracking math anxiety in students
Beilock and her team tested
73 undergraduate students to determine their working memory capacities and their level of math anxiety. They also measured
cortisol levels (via a saliva sample) before and after a stressful math test. They published the results in a paper titled
"Choke or Thrive? The Relation between Salivary Cortisol and Math Performance Depends on Individual Differences in
Working Memory and Math Anxiety."
Among students with low working memories, there was little difference in
performance related to either cortisol production or math anxiety, the study found. Students with lower working memory exert
relatively less mental effort to begin with, researchers found, so taking a stressful test didn't drastically compromise
Among people with large working memories, those who were typically the most
talented, rising cortisol either led to a performance boost or a performance flop - depending on whether they were already
anxious about math. For students without a fear of math, the more their cortisol increased during the test, the
better they performed - for these confident students, the body's response to stress actually pushed them to greater heights.
In contrast, for students with more anxiety about math, surging cortisol was tied to poor
"Under stress, we have a variety of bodily reactions; how we interpret these
reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure," Beilock said. "If a student interprets
their physiological response as a sign they are about to fail, they will. And, when taking a math test, students anxious
about math are likely to do this. But the same physiological response can also be linked to success if a student's outlook
is positive," she further explained.
In other words, a student's perspective can determine
success or failure. Students can change their outlooks by writing about their anxieties before a test and "off
-loading" their fears, or simply thinking about a time in the past when they have succeeded, her research has
Taking an exam brings on a different kind of pressure than when a student recites a memorized
speech before classmates or an athlete plays before a packed stadium, other research by Beilock and her team
Why people choke under pressure
In another paper published this month in the
"Journal of Experimental Psychology," Beilock and her colleagues identify, for the first time, different
ways in which people can fumble under pressure. They also suggest remedies. The work, which was based on a series of
experiments with several hundred undergraduate students in varying stressful situations, is reported in the paper
"Choking Under Pressure: Multiple Routes to Skill Failure."
The experiments explored two theories of
why people choke: One holds that people are distracted by worries, and as a result, fail to access their talents; another
conversely proposes that stress causes people to pay too much attention to their performance and become self-
"What we showed in these experiments is that the situation determines what kind of choking
develops. Knowing this can help people choose the right strategy to overcome the problem," Beilock
In the case of test-taking, good test preparation and a writing exercise can boost performance by
reducing anxiety and freeing up working memory. The kind of choking prompted by performing before others calls for a
"When you're worried about doing well in a game, or giving a memorized speech in front
of others, the best thing to do is to distract yourself with a little tune before you start so you don't become
focused on all the details of what you've done so many times before," she said. "On the playing field,
thinking too much can be a bad thing," she further explained.
The work in the two papers,
as well as research for the Choke, was supported with grants from the National Science Foundation. Co-authors for
"Choking Under Pressure" were Marci DeCaro of Vanderbilt University, and Robin Thomas of Miami University and Neil
Albert of UChicago. Joining Beilock in writing "Choke or Thrive?" were Andrew Mattarella-Micke, Jill Mateo and
Katherine Foster of UChicago, and Megan Kozak of Pace University.