Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Meghan Holohan

When asked a question about fair pay for women during the Miss USA competition last night, Miss Utah, 21-year-old Marissa Powell, did what happens to so many of us in less glamorous situations. She totally blanked.

And then said: “I think we can relate this back to education and how we are continuing to try to strive to figure out how to create jobs right now. That’s the biggest problem and I think, especially the men are, um, seen as the leaders of this and so we need to try to figure out how to create education better so that we can solve this problem. Thank you.”

At least she remembered to be gracious.

It brings to mind, of course, the infamous flub in 2007 by Miss South Carolina Teen, who blanked while answering a question about geography. But these beauty queens most certainly practiced for the Q&A portion of the pageant. What causes gaffes like these?

Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and author of the book “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To,” says that the trouble starts when we get nervous.

“People start worrying and that eats up their brainpower,” explains Beilock.

She uses a metaphor: When there are too many programs running on your computer, it becomes sluggish and confused. Our brains work this way, too. Miss Utah might have been thinking about how she performed in other categories or whether she picked the best bikini -- or maybe, she simply got caught up with all the lights and attention.

“When all eyes are on us, it makes us stumble on our words,” Beilock says. “It disrupts the things that [usually] work on autopilot.”

And as soon as Miss Utah realized she wasn’t doing well, she probably became self-conscious, draining even more brain power away from focusing on answering the question.

“I think we often think of choking in the Olympics or Miss America pageant, but it happens all the time,” she says, adding that she’s a great parallel parker when no one is in the car. (She’s not the only one.)

This morning on TODAY, the anchors admitted that they've had their share of on-air brain farts.

"We've been in that position where we're in the middle of saying something and you kind of go blank," Matt Lauer said. "And then it's like that hot flash starts in the middle of your back and heads up the back of your neck, which only makes matters worse. I feel for her."

To avoid blanking, Beilock recommends that people practice. If you need to make a big presentation to the board of directors, for example, practice the presentation in front of a large group of people or videotape it. She also says that research shows that when people write down their fears before a big performance, they do better -- and they avoid those dreaded blanks. She notes that everyone can avoid choking “if we can stop worrying.”