Peter H Brown Clinical Psychologist

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Under Pressure: Why We “Choke” At The Critical Moment

A star golfer misses a critical putt; a brilliant student fails to ace a test; a savvy salesperson blows a key presentation. Each of these people has suffered the same bump in mental processing: They have just choked under pressure.

Credit: and Source: ScienceDaily

It’s tempting to dismiss such failures as “just nerves.” But to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, they are preventable results of information logjams in the brain. By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best — and when we choke — Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” said Beilock, an associate professor in psychology.

Preventing choking in sports Some of the most spectacular and memorable moments of choking occur in sports when the whole world is watching. Many remember golfer Greg Norman’s choke at the 1996 U.S. Masters. Norman had played brilliantly for the first three days of the tournament, taking a huge lead. But on the final day, his performance took a dive, and he ended the Masters five shots out of first place.

Choking in such cases happens when the polished programs executed by the brains of extremely accomplished athletes go awry. In “Choke,” Beilock recounts famous examples of these malfunctions in the context of brain science to tell the story of why people choke and what can be done to alleviate it.

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing the lead (as in Norman’s case) or worrying about failing in general, can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” In a nutshell, paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success.

Unfortunately, this increased control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

“My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,” Beilock said. “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.” Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows.

Preventing choking on tests and in business The brain also can work to sabotage performance in ways other than paralysis by analysis. For instance, pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities.

Beilock’s work has shown the importance of working memory in helping people perform their best, in academics and in business. Working memory is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad that is temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand, whether that task is doing a math problem at the board or responding to tough, on-the-spot questions from a client. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. People lose the brain power necessary to excel.

One example is the phenomenon of “stereotype threat.” This is when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths that contend, for instance, that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance.

Beilock’s research is the basis of her new book, “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To,” published Sept. 21 by Simon and Schuster, Free Press.

In Choke, Beilock describes research demonstrating that high-achieving people underperform when they are worried about confirming a stereotype about the racial group or gender to which they belong. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can be either reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.

In one study, researchers gave standardized tests to black and white students, both before and after President Obama was elected. Black test takers performed worse than white test takers before the election. Immediately after Obama’s election, however, blacks’ performance improved so much that their scores were nearly equal with whites. When black students can overcome the worries brought on by stereotypes, because they see someone like President Obama who directly counters myths about racial variation in intelligence, their performance improves.

Beilock and her colleagues also have shown that when first-grade girls believe that boys are better than girls at math, they perform more poorly on math tests. One big source of this belief? The girls’ female teachers. It turns out that elementary school teachers are often highly anxious about their own math abilities, and this anxiety is modeled from teacher to student. When the teachers serve as positive role models in math, their male and female students perform equally well.

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Meditation and practice can help Even when a student is not a member of a stereotyped group, tests can be challenging for the brightest people, who can clutch if anxiety taps out their mental resources. In that instance, relaxation techniques can help.

In tests in her lab, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability.

Stress can undermine performance in the world of business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities.

Practice helps people navigate through these tosses on life’s ocean. But, more importantly, practicing under stress — even a moderate amount — helps a person feel comfortable when they find themselves standing in the line of fire, Beilock said. The experience of having dealt with stress makes those situations seem like old hat. The goal is to close the gap between practice and performance.

A person also can overcome anxiety by thinking about what to say, not what not to say, said Beilock, who added that staying positive is always a good idea.

“Think about the journey, not the outcome,” Beilock advised. “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.”

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September 27, 2010 Posted by | anxiety, Books, brain, Cognition, Positive Psychology, research, Resilience | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“My Kid Wouldn’t Go There”: Teens & Teen Sexuality

It can be difficult for parents of teenagers to come to terms with the fact their kids may have sex, particularly given widespread concerns about the consequences of teen sexual activity. In fact, a new study from North Carolina State University shows that many parents think that their children aren’t interested in sex – but that everyone else’s kids are.

“Parents I interviewed had a very hard time thinking about their own teen children as sexually desiring subjects,” says Dr. Sinikka Elliott, an assistant professor of sociology at NC State and author of the study. In other words, parents find it difficult to think that their teenagers want to have sex.

“At the same time,” Elliott says, “parents view their teens’ peers as highly sexual, even sexually predatory.” By taking this stance, the parents shift the responsibility for potential sexual activity to others – attributing any such behavior to peer pressure, coercion or even entrapment.

For example, Elliott says, parents of teenage boys were often concerned that their sons may be lured into sexual situations by teenage girls who, the parents felt, may use sex in an effort to solidify a relationship. The parents of teenage girls, meanwhile, expressed fears that their daughters would be taken advantage of by sexually driven teenage boys.

These beliefs contribute to stereotypes of sexual behavior that aren’t helpful to parents or kids.

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“By using sexual stereotypes to absolve their children of responsibility for sexual activity, the parents effectively reinforce those same stereotypes,” Elliott says.

Parents’ use of these stereotypes also paints teen heterosexual relationships in an unflattering, adversarial light, Elliott says and notes the irony of this: “Although parents assume their kids are heterosexual, they don’t make heterosexual relationships sound very appealing.”

A paper describing the study is published in the May issue of Symbolic Interaction. Elliott is also the author of the forthcoming book, Not My Kid: Parents and Teen Sexuality, which will by published by New York University Press.

Source: ScienceDaily (May 3, 2010)

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May 5, 2010 Posted by | Adolescence, Books, Child Behavior, Girls, Identity, Intimate Relationshps, Parenting, Sex & Sexuality | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Spank Now, Pay Later? Children Spanked At 3yrs More Likely To Be Aggressive At 5

April 12, 2010 — Mums who spank their 3-year-olds may be increasing their children’s risk of aggressive behavior, such as bullying, by the time they turn 5, a study shows.

The study, published in the May issue of Pediatrics, adds to evidence suggesting that spanking and other types of corporal punishment set kids up for aggressive behaviors later in life.

“Children need guidance and discipline; however, parents should focus on positive, non-physical forms of discipline and avoid the use of spanking,” study researcher Catherine A. Taylor, PhD, an assistant professor of community health sciences at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, tells WebMD in an email. “This message is consistent with that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which ‘strongly opposes striking a child for any reason.'”

Taylor and colleagues asked about 2,500 mothers how often they had spanked their 3-year-old child in the past month. Nearly half of the moms said they had not spanked their child during the previous month, 27.9% said they spanked their 3-year-old once or twice within the last month, and 26.5% percent said they spanked their child more than twice in the past month.

The researchers also asked moms questions about their child’s aggressive behavior, such as whether they were bullies, cruel, mean, destructive, and/or prone to getting into fights with others at age 3 and again at age 5.

Although other studies have shown a link between spanking and aggressive behavior, the new study solidifies the connection because the researchers controlled for other maternal risk factors that might have explained the link, such as neglect, maternal use of drugs and alcohol, maternal stress and depression, and the physical or psychological maltreatment of the child.

“This study reinforces that any kind of violence or physical aggression in the home is another risk factor for kids being more aggressive in the future,” says Patricia Hametz, MD, director of the Injury and Violence Prevention Center and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Columbia University and director of the general pediatrics inpatient service at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York City.

Age-Appropriate Discipline

“The way you discipline depends on the age of the child, and pediatricians should give age-appropriate suggestions about how to discipline toddlers,” Hametz [says]. “Some people like time-outs, which remove a child from whatever it is that is overstimulating them.”

Another tactic is to reward good behavior. “Praising, pointing out, and literally rewarding good behavior is a better discipline strategy than punishing bad behavior after it happens,” she says.

Jennifer E. Lansford, PhD, a research scientist at the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy in Durham, N.C., agrees. “These findings suggest that spanking has the unintended consequence of increasing children’s aggressive behavior, so the implication for parents would be that they should not use corporal punishment, but find other ways of managing their children’s misbehavior and promoting good behavior,” she says in an email.

This may include teaching about good and bad behavior and trying to prevent misbehavior rather than just reacting to it once it has occurred, she suggests. “Parents can use reward systems such as sticker charts, where a child earns a sticker or something else for good behavior, and special privileges such as extra time with mom or dad can be offered for completing the sticker chart.”s

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Learning Aggressive Attitudes

The new findings make sense to child psychologist Vincent J. Barone, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and the director of Developmental and Behavioral Sciences South Clinic at Children’s Mercy Hospital and Clinics, also in Kansas City.

“The findings in this research are consistent with what we know about violent experiences for children. Whether a violent video game or corporal punishment, children learn aggressive attitudes and act them out when they are exposed to violence,” he says. “Children don’t learn peaceful ways of solving conflict when they are exposed to violence.”

Barone usually suggests that parents briefly describe the inappropriate behavior and then use a time-out.

Also, he suggests, “use your attention and passion to describe and praise positive behaviors such as cooperation, thoughtfulness, and respect for others.”

Sources

American Academy of Pediatrics

Denise Mann WebMD Health News

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April 16, 2010 Posted by | Books, Child Behavior, Parenting, Resilience | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments