Accomplished People More Likely To Fail Under Stress


People high in working memory end up using shortcuts under pressure and perform worse.

Talented people often choke under pressure because the distraction caused by stress consumes their working memory, a psychologist at the University of Chicago has found.

Highly accomplished people tend to heavily rely on their 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 of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Her findings were presented Saturday, Feb. 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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 are not impacted additionally by working under pressure, the research found.

Oddly enough, I've always found the opposite to be true. I'm more easily distracted when I'm not under pressure, and when put in stressful situations, I focus more than usual and am a better problem solver than normal. That may explain why I always took tests well even though I didn't study so much. Not that I was a bad student, I just had lots of intellectual interests outside of my boring college curriculum.

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In related news, Harvard Business School is putting some students under more stress to help them learn how to deal with it.

  • What can I say? Not every people has the same capability to operate under pressure. Some people like to work under pressure because at that time they can work well and some don’t. I think I am in the second category. I do not like to work under pressure. This is why I hate corporate jobs. They are very much stressful.

  • I am a person who can not work properly under stress. This is why I hate corporate jobs. On the contrary, I have seen many people who can work well under stress. I wish I could become like them.

  • K Hiemstra

    My experiences are the same as yours. I have found my best performance to be when under large amounts of stress and where a lot is on the line. In my case, fear of failure is a fantastic motivator.

    It may not mean that the decision making is better (which appears to be what the article is getting at), but more decisions get made and more gets accomplished. The end result is usually better as well since you are forced to focus on the core of the matter rather than having the freedome to ponder every angle and potential alternative.

  • Lord

    I suspect there is actually a considerable difference between individuals as what constitutes pressure. People who think they work well under pressure may have never really experienced it, while those who know they don’t may have felt it in extremus.

  • Interesting subject. I have found the time management matrix of Steven Covey extremely helpful in stressful situations. Increasing the percentage of time spent in stressful and crisis situations “Quad 1” can easily eat up the time available for other important issues such as planning and relationship building. So as long as we are in control of the amount of time we spend under stress is what’s important and certainly a bit of adrelanine can boost our focus on tasks at hand.

  • nice post!i strongly believe we can’t avoid stress and in a way, a little stress is good for us ,but the bottom line is , “how you balance stress”. i have written on this subject and hopefully it will help us.