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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2011 Aug;140(3):390-406. doi: 10.1037/a0023466.

Choking under pressure: multiple routes to skill failure.

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Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203, USA.


Poor performance in pressure-filled situations, or "choking under pressure," has largely been explained by two different classes of theories. Distraction theories propose that choking occurs because attention needed to perform the task at hand is coopted by task-irrelevant thoughts and worries. Explicit monitoring theories claim essentially the opposite-that pressure prompts individuals to attend closely to skill processes in a manner that disrupts execution. Although both mechanisms have been shown to occur in certain contexts, it is unclear when distraction and/or explicit monitoring will ultimately impact performance. The authors propose that aspects of the pressure situation itself can lead to distraction and/or explicit monitoring, differentially harming skills that rely more or less on working memory and attentional control. In Experiments 1-2, it is shown that pressure that induces distraction (involving performance-contingent outcomes) hurts rule-based category learning heavily dependent on attentional control. In contrast, pressure that induces explicit monitoring of performance (monitoring by others) hurts information-integration category learning thought to run best without heavy demands on working memory and attentional control. In Experiment 3, the authors leverage knowledge about how specific types of pressure impact performance to design interventions to eliminate choking. Finally, in Experiment 4, the selective effects of monitoring-pressure are replicated in a different procedural-based task: the serial reaction time task. Skill failure (and success) depends in part on how the performance environment influences attention and the extent to which skill execution depends on explicit attentional control.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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