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By Cari Nierenberg

Whether it's missing a golf putt, scoring poorly on a big test, or blowing a job interview or sales presentation, you've likely had some first-hand experience with choking under pressure. Performing below your abilities in a stress-filled situation happens in the workplace and at school, in sports and in the arts -- and it's not simply that your nerves get the better of you.

There are two main theories about why people choke: One is that thoughts and worries distract your attention from the task at hand, and you don't access your talents. A second explanation suggests that pressure causes individuals to think too much about all the skills involved and this messes up their execution.

Psychologists are hoping to understand when and why some people are more likely to succeed in high-stakes settings while others fail. But people usually think all high-pressure situations have the same effects on performance, says Marci DeCaro, an assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky.

DeCaro and a team of researchers recently published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that found not all high-pressure situations are the same, and they looked at how different types of pressure influenced performance.

They compared "monitoring pressure" -- being watched by others, whether it's a teacher, audience, or video camera -- to "outcome pressure" -- seeking a high test score, prize money, scholarship, or title -- to lower-key situations.

In one experiment, scientists tracked 130 undergraduate students ability to complete two sets of tasks on a computer in which they were asked to correctly categorize shapes and symbols. One-third of the group was in a pressure-monitoring condition (they were told their performance was being videotaped), another group was in an outcome-pressure situation (they were told their accuracy on the first task had been determined, and they were offered a financial incentive to perform 20 percent better), and a third group was a low-pressure control.

Researchers found that tempting students with money hurt their performance by distracting them from an attention-demanding task, perhaps because they worried more and relied less on their working memory. Believing you're being watched caused students to focus their attention on the skills needed to complete a proceduralized task and less on the outcome, and their performance suffered. 

Pressure itself isn't always bad, DeCaro says, it depends on the task and type of pressure encountered.

"Pressure hurts performance if it leads you to pay attention in a way that is bad for the particular task you're doing," says DeCaro. Some skills are better performed when you devote a lot of attention to them, like solving math problems, she explains, while others (a well-learned sports skill like your golf putt) are performed better without thinking too closely about the steps you're taking.

Knowing what kinds of pressure situations lead you to focus too much or not enough, might help you find ways to overcome the problem. 

Have you discovered any secrets to prevent choking under pressure?