March 15, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 12

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    When under pressure, high achievers turn to short cuts to solve difficult problems

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Sian Beilock

    Talented people often choke under pressure because the distraction caused by stress consumes their working memory, research in Psychology has found.

    Highly accomplished people tend to heavily rely on an abundant supply of working memory and are therefore disadvantaged when challenged to solve difficult problems—such as mathematical ones—under pressure, according to research by Sian Beilock, Assistant Professor in Psychology and the College. Beilock presented her findings on Saturday, Feb. 17, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

    People with less-adequate supplies of working memory learn other ways of problem solving to compensate for their deficiencies, and although these alternative problem-solving strategies are not highly accurate, they also are not impacted additionally by working under pressure, the research found.

    Working memory is a short-term memory system that maintains a limited amount of information in an active state. It functions by providing information of immediate relevance while preventing distractions and irrelevant thoughts from interfering with the task at hand.

    People with a high level of working memory depend on it heavily during problem solving. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” Beilock said.

    However, that same advantage makes them particularly susceptible to the dangers of stress.

    “In essence, feelings of pressure introduce an intrusion that eats up available working memory for talented people,” Beilock said.

    She found that when put under pressure, the talented people with larger amounts of working memory began using short cuts to solve problems, such as guessing and estimation, strategies similar to those used by individuals with less-adequate working memories. As a result of taking those short cuts, the accuracy of the talented people was undermined.

    “These findings suggest that performance pressure harms higher working memory individuals by consuming the cognitive resources that they rely on for their superior performance. As a result, higher working memory individuals respond by switching to the less-accurate problem-solving strategies normally used by lower working memory people,” Beilock said.

    The results have implications for the evaluation of performance on high-stakes tests, such as those needed to advance in school and college entrance examinations, she said.

    Having first determined the levels of working memory of their subjects—roughly 100 college undergraduates—the researchers tested the impact of stress on working memory by subjecting the students to solve a series of complicated, unfamiliar mathematics problems.

    In this exercise, the researchers introduced a stressor by telling the students they would be paid for their correct answers, but only if a partner, unknown to them and chosen randomly, also chose the correct answers. They then were told their partners had solved the problems correctly, thus increasing the pressure on them to do the same.

    As a result of the pressure, the performance of students with strong working memory declined to the same level as those with more limited working memory. Those with more limited working memory performed as well under added pressure as they did without the added stress.