Why some people choke under pressure

Renee McKay

You've run through the scenario in your mind, you've nailed it in practice, you're ready. But, when you're faced with a real life do-or-die moment, you lose your cool and miss the mark. What gives?

New research out of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says your fear of loss, combined with positive or negative incentives, influences performance.

"If you're someone who chokes under pressure, getting into the mindset of having nothing to lose can help," Vikram S. Chib, PhD, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, told CBS News.

"Everybody is loss averse but some people are more loss averse than others," Chib says.

Chib defines loss aversion as "how you value losses relative to gains." He says, on average people tend to value losses twice as much as gains. In other words, most people will gamble $5 on a coin-flip if they stand to win at least a $10.

In order to asses the degree of a person's loss aversion and how that impacts performance, Chib set up a series of gambles including a financial gain or loss for 26 participants. People who were less willing to take the gamble were considered more loss averse.

By monitoring the participants' brain activity as they were presented with incentives and then performed a skilled movement task, the researchers found that performance is influenced by a brain area called the ventral striatum.

They found that the more a person fears losing the worse they perform when the incentive is a big potential gain. Therefore, if somebody is extremely loss averse, reframing a task as a high stakes potential loss can actually enhance their performance.

Conversely, those with low loss aversion had the opposite response. So, if you are less afraid of losing, reframing a task as a potentially huge gain can help you succeed.

Knowing your degree of loss aversion can help you set your life up for success, but Chib says there is a lot more that goes into winning and losing. He wants to dive into the question of what he calls "social incentives" -- how being watched by others can influence performance.

Additionally, now that they've found a connection with a deep part of the brain responsible for loss aversion and the motor cortex, Chib is looking to study the effect of noninvasive brain stimulation on performance.

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