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Neuroscience Explains Why People Choke During Spelling Bees

I finally know what part of my brain made me fumble in fifth grade.
The US Scripps National Spelling Bee. Image: Scripps/Flickr

I remember that fateful day at the tail end of fifth grade with the vividity of hot, flushed cheeks and disappointment. I was in the final round of our class spelling bee, and it was my turn. My teacher spoke the final word: "Believe." Easy. I'd read it a million times.

But what was that rule again? "I" before "E," except after "C"? Or was it the other way around? All of a sudden, I couldn't remember. I spit it out: B-e-l-e-i-v-e. I choked, making that minor rule a personal site of frustration for years to come.

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Thanks to new research by neuroscientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, I finally know what part of my brain made me fumble when it really counted, and why.

According to their study, published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, the phenomenon of choking under pressure is mediated by the ventral striatum, a part of the brain known to react to increasing rewards. How you respond to choking-related stimuli depends on how loss averse you are, and how the consequences of succeeding or failing at a particular task are framed.

Loss aversion refers to the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. In a sense, it's all about perspective: would you rather gain $5 or avoid losing $5? According to the study, your answer to that question likely influences how you respond in pressure situations—when it comes down to the wire, are you more focused on winning or concerned about losing?

In the first test, gain trials had users either win money or lose out on winning the money. Image: Chub et. al

"If these results generalize to other types of tasks and incentives, there could be important implications for developing new behavioral techniques to overcome choking under pressure," the authors wrote. "Tailoring the framing of tasks and incentive mechanisms in terms of potential gain or loss, depending on a person's behavioral loss aversion, could potentially mitigate decreases in performance for large incentives."

The researchers, led by Vikram Chib, asked 26 participants to play a simple, but difficult, video game that required them to navigate an object into target zone within just two seconds. Before each new round, the participants were notified that they either stood to lose or gain a sum of money, ranging from $0 to $100. During the game, their brain activity was monitored by fMRI, an imaging technique that tracks the flow of blood in the brain, indicating spikes of activity in one area or another.

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After the initial testing, the participants' loss aversion was determined by their response to yet another simple game: They were asked whether they would take 140 coin toss gambles where they stood to either lose or gain various sums of money. They then assessed the subjects' performance on the first test in light of their respective loss aversion levels.

Across the board, the activity in the participants' ventral striata increased as the stakes grew larger, regardless of whether they were presented as gains or losses, and decreased during actual gameplay.

Meanwhile, in loss trials, if users didn't win, they actually lost money. Image: Chub et. al

But a surprising finding emerged: more loss-averse players had lower activity levels when they stood to gain a lot, and choked. In contrast, participants with low loss aversion played worse when they were facing potential losses than they did when they had something to gain. In other words, people who were determined to avoid losing actually lost when they stood to gain a lot. The opposite was true for people who kind of didn't give a shit, apparently.

Really, the only problem my fifth grade self had was caring too damn much. In the heat of the moment, I believed everything was at stake: my already threadbare popularity stood to gain a boost, or so I thought. (I was the kind of kid who really cared about spelling bees, in case you couldn't tell.) My ventral striatum kicked into overdrive as I considered the potential gains, dropped off when the final moment arrived, and I choked.

If Chib and his colleagues' findings are correct, then I may have performed better had I merely perceived the stakes differently.