The effect of stress on performance depends on individual and situational factors

September, 2011

A new study shows how stress only impacts math performance in those with both higher working memory capacity and math anxiety, while another shows that whether or not pressure impacts your performance depends on the nature of the pressure and the type of task.

Working memory capacity and level of math anxiety were assessed in 73 undergraduate students, and their level of salivary cortisol was measured both before and after they took a stressful math test.

For those students with low working memory capacity, neither cortisol levels nor math anxiety made much difference to their performance on the test. However, for those with higher WMC, the interaction of cortisol level and math anxiety was critical. For those unafraid of math, the more their cortisol increased during the test, the better they performed; but for those anxious about math, rising cortisol meant poorer performance.

It’s assumed that low-WMC individuals were less affected because their performance is lower to start with (this shouldn’t be taken as an inevitability! Low-WMC students are disadvantaged in a domain like math, but they can learn strategies that compensate for that problem). But the effect on high-WMC students demonstrates how our attitude and beliefs interact with the effects of stress. We may all have the same physiological responses, but we interpret them in different ways, and this interpretation is crucial when it comes to ‘higher-order’ cognitive functions.

Another study investigated two theories as why people choke under pressure: (a) they’re distracted by worries about the situation, which clog up their working memory; (b) the stress makes them pay too much attention to their performance and become self-conscious. Both theories have research backing from different domains — clearly the former theory applies more to the academic testing environment, and the latter to situations involving procedural skill, where explicit attention to the process can disrupt motor sequences that are largely automatic.

But it’s not as simple as one effect applying to the cognitive domain, and one to the domain of motor skills, and it’s a little mysterious why pressure could have too such opposite effects (drawing attention away, or toward). This new study carried out four experiments in order to define more precisely the characteristics of the environment that lead to these different effects, and suggest solutions to the problem.

In the first experiment, participants were given a category learning task, in which some categories had only one relevant dimension and could be distinguished according to one easily articulated rule, and others involved three relevant dimensions and one irrelevant one. Categorization in this case was based on a complex rule that would be difficult to verbalize, and so participants were expected to integrate the information unconsciously.

Rule-based category learning was significantly worse when participants were also engaged in a secondary task requiring them to monitor briefly appearing letters. However it was not affected when their secondary task involved them explicitly monitoring the categorization task and making a confidence judgment. On the other hand, the implicit category learning task was not disrupted by the letter-monitoring task, but was impaired by the confidence-judgment task. Further analysis revealed that participants who had to do the confidence-judgment task were less likely to use the best strategy, but instead persisted in trying to verbalize a one- or two-dimension rule.

In the second experiment, the same tasks were learned in a low-pressure baseline condition followed by either a low-pressure control condition or one of two high-pressure conditions. One of these revolved around outcome — participants would receive money for achieving a certain level of improvement in their performance. The other put pressure on the participants through monitoring — they were watched and videotaped, and told their performance would be viewed by other students and researchers.

Rule-based category learning was slower when the pressure came from outcomes, but not when the pressure came from monitoring. Implicit category learning was unaffected by outcome pressure, but worsened by monitoring pressure.

Both high-pressure groups reported the same levels of pressure.

Experiment 3 focused on the detrimental combinations — rule-based learning under outcome pressure; implicit learning under monitoring pressure — and added the secondary tasks from the first experiment.

As predicted, rule-based categories were learned more slowly during conditions of both outcome pressure and the distracting letter-monitoring task, but when the secondary task was confidence-judgment, the negative effect of outcome pressure was counteracted and no impairment occurred. Similarly, implicit category learning was slowed when both monitoring pressure and the confidence-judgment distraction were applied, but was unaffected when monitoring pressure was counterbalanced by the letter task.

The final experiment extended the finding of the second experiment to another domain — procedural learning. As expected, the motor task was significantly affected by monitoring pressure, but not by outcome pressure.

These findings suggest two different strategies for dealing with choking, depending on the situation and the task. In the case of test-taking, good test preparation and a writing exercise can boost performance by reducing anxiety and freeing up working memory. If you're worried about doing well in a game or giving a memorized speech in front of others, you instead want to distract yourself so you don't become focused on the details of what you're doing.

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