Some years ago, a Princeton psychologist named Sam Glucksberg brought a group of test subjects into a room. In the room was a table positioned against a wall. On the table was a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle. “Your job,” Glucksberg told his subjects, “is to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that when it’s lit, the wax will not drip onto the table. I will be timing you, and I will use your results to establish averages and benchmarks.”
Some time later, he brought another group of subjects into the room. He showed them an identical set-up: table, matches, box of thumbtacks, and candle. He gave them the identical instructions, but added a twist: “I will be timing you, and you will be rewarded with money based on your times. If you finish in the top 25% of all times, you will receive X dollars. If you’re the fastest of all times, we will give you double that amount.”
All of Glucksberg’s groups were timed against one another. And what do you think happened as a result?
The groups who received the money as a reward were, on average, three-and-a-half minutes slower at coming up with the right answer. How could this happen?
Pressure and Choking
My fascination on this subject began when I wrote an entry on Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, “The Art of Failure,” in which he talks about the difference between “choking” and “panicking.” Gladwell cites research from Dr. Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia, talking about how the brain has two distinct, physically separated learning centers that record information in different ways. “Explicit learning” is learning that happens by conscious attention to lots of details, like learning how to spell certain words. “Implicit learning” is a largely subconscious process that’s trained through repetition, like learning to play the piano.
The implicit learning centers are far more capable of nuance and “touch” than the explicit learning centers, and so any activities that are performance-related – acting, playing tennis, playing music – are best handled by implicit processes. Gladwell notes that there is a certain specific type of performance failure, “choking,” that happens under high pressure situations. Choking is a stress reaction wherein the explicit parts of the brain take over implicit processes, and the performer/athlete/speaker becomes self-conscious and over-thinks their actions. Because the explicit, conscious centers of the brain work much more slowly than the implicit, subconscious centers, the performance will start to fall apart. The performer is “in his head.”
So, from this, we understand that certain advanced processes of the brain – processes that are mostly subconscious – will tend to shut down under stress. We know from Gladwell that implicitly-learned motor skills like tennis serves are vulnerable to this phenomenon. This makes sense in the scope of human evolution: thousands of years ago, acute stress usually represented a life-threatening situation. At that moment, you probably did not care a great deal about nuance. You just wanted to be as alert and reactive as possible.
But Gladwell’s article opens the door to more questions. Does this stress reaction affect us in other ways besides making us over-think what we’re doing? Also, what constitutes a stressful situation, and does that definition ever change?
Pressure and Problem-solving
Daniel Pink is a former White House staffer, and author of the phenomenally popular business book, Drive: The Suprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In it, he asserts that “extrinsic motivators” like rewarding with money do not motivate employees in the way we think they do. To illustrate this, he cites Sam Glucksberg’s study based on a famous cognitive problem called The Candle Problem.
The Candle Problem is a famous test wherein a subject sees a candle, a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks sitting on a table, and told to fix the candle to the wall in such a way that the candle will not drip wax on the table below it. The correct solution is to empty the box of thumbtacks, tack the empty box itself to the wall, and use that box as a platform to hold the candle. Arriving at the right solution requires enough creative problem solving to overcome a tendency called “functional fixedness”: the tendency to see the thumbtack box only as a container for thumbtacks simply because that’s how it was presented to the subject.
As we mentioned, Glucksberg gave this old problem a new twist by offering a financial incentive to complete the task faster than the average. Glucksberg discovered to his amazement that the teams with the financial incentive took significantly longer than the group with no incentive at all. In this case, the incentive did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do: instead of sharpening creative thinking, the incentive dulled it.
Extrinsic motivators like cash rewards focus our mind, but also narrow it. When we want to win an incentive, that narrow focus helps us accomplish certain straightforward tasks very efficiently. But this same tunnel-vision cuts out most of our high-level problem-solving skills.
These extrinsic motivators are another form of pressure. The moment a person decides to change their behavior based on a stick-and-carrot, he presses himself unusually hard to achieve his goal. The outcome, which was of lesser consequence before the incentives were introduced, is now a bigger deal. When the subjects push themselves towards a target, they trade their creative problem-solving abilities for mechanical efficiency.
So now we have seen pressure situation rob us of two sets of higher processes, performance abilities and creative problem solving. It’s no coincidence that both these processes are affiliated largely with the subconscious mind. Pressure seems to focus our conscious mind at the expense of subconscious processes.
Pressure and Emotional Receptivity
The list of subconscious processes dulled under pressure does not stop here. The emotive processes in the brain are also heavily subconscious. Emotional responses are also affected by acute pressure. I have some good anecdotal evidence to this effect from my friends in the acting community. Stage acting is an interesting and unique performance process. The actor must not only perform using implicit learning the way a sports player would, but must also be emotionally vulnerable to his or her scene partner. They do this by suspending disbelief, allowing themselves to partially go through the same emotions as someone in their character’s situation.
From those actors whom I’ve spoken to, most all report that it’s much easier for them to access their emotions freely – to “get into” the scene – when they do not feel themselves in an especially high-pressure performance situation. For example, An actor might feel pressure if they know that a certain family member will be in the audience that night. Or perhaps, if they know a certain critic will be watching. Anything that makes one particular performance “a big deal” will also make it potentially harder for actors to experience honest emotional reactions in the moment.
So what is it about certain situations that make us react in this way? Why is it that some of us may feel this reaction in some situations, like giving a speech, but not in other situations, like meeting a deadline? Also, are we doomed to feel that knot in our stomach every single time we’re about to give a speech, or will it someday go away?
When you perceive distress – pressure or stress in excess of what you believe you can handle – your brain reacts by putting your body into a defensive mode. The hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain, sends signals for your body’s endocrine system to release certain hormones. The fight-or-flight hormone we’re most familiar with is adrenaline*. Adrenaline elevates our heart-rate and focuses our alertness.
But along with adrenaline, the body releases a second hormone called cortisol. Cortisol serves a number of functions, one of which is to shut down those systems that are nonessential. Cortisol shuts down the immune system, which is why those people under prolonged periods of stress are more likely to catch colds and the flu. It also shuts down the sexual response system, which is why chronic stress has been related to sexual dysfunction. Cortisol is the culprit that shuts down all the creative, emotional, implicit, and high-functioning processes in the brain. It turns us all – just as evolution would have it – into explicit, inartistic executors. Danger. Run. Now.
Even though the body releases both adrenaline and cortisol as a reaction to stress, it releases them based on two separate triggering mechanisms, and one is not as desirable as the other. Adrenaline speeds the heart, increases the blood pressure, and thereby delivers more oxygen and sugar to the brain and muscles. The body releases it when it’s gearing up for anything that requires effort, from parachute jumping to math tests.
Cortisol, however, is different. It is released into the body only when the brain perceives distress, – that is, a situation that’s out of control, or beyond one’s ability to cope. Cortisol, not adrenaline, causes that pit-of-your-stomach anxious feeling when you know you’re in trouble. Though it serves to concentrate brain function on the here-and-now, its presence is negatively correlated with peak performance. If adrenaline is the “here we go” trigger, cortisol is the “uh-oh” trigger.
Dr. Richard Dienstbier, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, studies the effects of repeated stresses on animals and humans. According to his research, peak performance at demanding tasks, as well as long-term emotional stability, correlate with four distinct qualities of the body’s stress response:
- Adrenal endurance – the tendency to resist total depletion of adrenaline, which otherwise results in exhaustion
- Adrenal responsiveness – Low adrenal base rates, but a fast and strong adrenal response to stress, followed by a quick decline once the stress has passed.
- Increased receptivity to the effects of adrenaline – attuned beta-receptor responsiveness. This is the opposite of the effect caused by “beta-blockers” in heart patients, where you’d want to minimize the effects of adrenaline on weak hearts.
- Cortisol suppression – During times of stress, cortisol release is not triggered, and therefore does not climb above base levels.
Poor task performance is correlated to the opposite stress reaction: high base levels of stress hormones already in the system, quickly depleted adrenaline reserves, and a large and long-lasting release of cortisol into the bloodstream.
There are plenty of personality and genetic factors that effect stress hormone base rates and stress release rates, but Dienstbier’s research reveals a very interesting finding. When ordinary, untrained subjects are suddenly exposed to acute stress, their bodies panic and dump lots of stress hormones into the bloodstream. This tends to bring about only mediocre performance.
However, when subjects are exposed to similar stressors over and over, with non-stressed recovery periods, the body starts to respond differently. It uses less cortisol, and uses up adrenaline reserves less rapidly. In short, the body starts to resemble the ideal response outlined in the four points above, and the subject’s performance improves as a result.
These conditioning results seem to make sense. The first time you encounter a stress situation – like, say, moving to a new house – your primitive brain knows 1) that it has to gear up for something (adrenaline), and 2) that it has never coped with anything like this before, and that the situation might be cause for dread (cortisol). But if someone moves frequently, the primitive brain adapts to the stressor. While the event is still stressful, the brain understands more clearly how to cope with the process. Less cortisol is required. Also, the adrenal responses are more “in-shape”, and less likely to deplete quickly.
Conventional wisdom in psychology used to believe that stress responses were 100% negative, and people should work to expel stress from their lives. But when we understand stress at a more granular level, we see that it might only be certain types of stress reactions that are negative. A certain amount of stress, on a limited and intermittent basis, might be necessary to keep our responses in shape. Dienstbier’s research supports the idea of “toughening up,” and gives a physiological definition for what it means to be tough. Toughness, we now see, has mostly to do with how our bodies physically respond to stress. What’s more, that response can be conditioned and improved.
Optimizing Our Performance
All these findings taken together suggest that there are ways we can actively improve our performance.
1) Expose yourself to repeated, productive stressors just beyond your comfort zone, with non-stressed recovery periods
Dienstbier’s article suggests that toughening in one area of stress will carry over into other areas. He offers aerobic exercise as an example of a productive stress activity that can help condition the body’s stress responses. When those responses become conditioned, they will affect the body’s response to many different kinds of stressors.
I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of conditioning carry-over from one type of stressor to another. For about ten years, I coached high school-aged actors in competitive speaking events. These students would compete at weekly tournaments, and undergo coaching sessions once or twice a week. This activity is a good example of intermittent exposure to a major stressor with non-stressed recovery.
Many students who began as freshmen with fears about public speaking or introverted personalities have credited this activity with increasing their confidence. Many stated they felt more confident not only about public speaking, but about themselves and their general abilities. I can also testify that these same students exhibited much more emotional maturity by the time they were seniors, though whether that was from the activity or from their natural development I cannot say. After seeing these results in total, however, I am convinced that stress conditioning in one area – like exercise or confidence-building activities – leads to better results in other performance-related areas.
2) Separate creative and complex processes from performance pressures
David Brooks, a commentator for the New York Times and a respected social science voice, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show in 2010 and commented on creative decision-making. He said that while straight-forward decisions are best left to traditional pros and cons, the best way to make a creative or cognitively complex decision is to “distract yourself with something else, and then come back to the problem.” Creativity and complex decisions are the realm of the subconscious mind. “While we have been distracted,” Brooks tells us, “your unconscious [mind] has been filtering it all, and will come to the right decision.”
My wife is in the creative industry, and she tells me that she can see a difference in the caliber of creative work that has a five-week deadline as opposed to a one-week deadline. This is not due to four additional weeks worth of conscious attention, because in that five-week span, creative artists are working on many different projects for other clients. The only impressive difference between the five-week work and the one-week work is that with the former, the creatives have been given time for their unconscious minds to ruminate on the problem.
Rather than introducing incentives, pressures or deadlines, we need a non-stressed, pleasantly distracted environment to give our subconscious minds room to work on more complex and creative problems. Therefore, when one receives a project, it’s best to think about it immediately and deeply, so as to give the subconscious mind time to ruminate before deadlines come due.
If you are a manager of people whose job it is to think creatively, you need to set an environment conducive to that type of thinking. Daniel Pink, discussed earlier, talks about the intrinsic motivators that produce better creative results than simple, extrinsic motivators like money or promotion.
3) Manage your own expectations
Conventional wisdom tells us that high expectations yield high results, and certainly we want our work to be excellent. There’s an old adage, however, which tells us that the perfect may be the enemy of the good.
Peter Bregman is a management consultant and blogger for the Harvard Business Review. He wrote a blog article recently on his experiences preparing to address the TED audience in Flint, Michigan. He parceled out weeks of time to work on his speech, but due to the high stakes involved he kept throwing out his drafts and starting over. Facing a deadline a few days away, he still had no material to work with. This is what he says happened next:
One morning, a few days before the speech, I found a note on my computer, left by Eleanor. She told me the speech might not end up being that great. But in the big picture, it wouldn’t make a huge difference. Surely it would be good. And if not that, then at least OK. Which, ultimately, would be just fine. Once I read that, something shifted in me. I stopped trying so hard. I stopped trying to be funny, smart, clever, or creative. I stopped trying to talk about the three most important things. I stopped trying to make this my best talk ever. Instead, I set a goal I knew I could achieve: talk about one thing — not necessarily the thing, just something that was meaningful to me — and talk about it simply and passionately.
We must set our expectations so that they do not tie us up in knots. Most of the pressure that inhibits us is self-pressure, and if we think about it, only a small fraction of that self-pressure is justified in order to motivate the results we want. The rest just gets in our way. Which brings me to:
4) Ease up on the melodrama and the over-analyzing
Melodramatic thinking and mental chatter form a feedback loop with stress triggers. If you’re psyched out about something, your body will release stress hormones. When you feel the effect of the stress hormones, you have a constant, nagging reminder that you don’t feel right, which further psyches you out. These types of loops, over the long term, correlate with neurotic and depressive tendencies.
Toughening-up only happens when the body has periods of non-stress in which to recover. During those periods, the primitive brain re-appraises situations, and moderates its future reactions. If you – like me – are susceptible to a lot of mental chatter and melodramatic thinking, your body will receive a constant stream of stress hormones, and experience a long-term, weakened state as a result.
Contrary to how it may seem, most of people’s inner self-talk does not help them to anticipate problems, cope with difficulties, or improve the quality of their lives. True, the chatter deals mostly with problems of past and future, but rarely does this kind of rumination actually help people improve their lives. Think of all the times you have replayed upsetting past events in your head – a conflict with another person, a humiliating experience, a stupid mistake, a traumatic event. In how many of those times did rehashing the experience actually help you to understand or cope with it? And, in those rare cases where self-reflection was actually helpful, or did you analyze and agonize more than necessary.
5) Now that you’ve learned all these details, forget them
It’s a little dangerous to know exactly what goes on in our bodies when we get nervous, because it might make us hyper self-conscious about it. Knowing what’s causing that sensation in the pit of our stomach tends to increase our risk of over-analyzing it as it’s happening, or of psyching us out that it’s happening at all.
This information is helpful only because it demonstrates that our responses can be trained over time, and our confidence, performance level and quality of life will improve as a result. Now that you know about stress hormones and the subconscious processes of the mind, forget it all and never think of it again.
Instead, train yourself up with hard challenges and periods of non-stress. And figure out which situations and motivators will give you the best, most creative results.
* A note to medical practitioners: I use the word “adrenaline” in this context for simplicity and recognition. Wherever I mention “adrenaline” in talking about the SNS response, I am referring to all the peripheral catecholamines, particularly epinephrine and norepinephrine.
[Editor’s Note: 4/22/11 – This article has just been recognized by the editors of WordPress.com as one of their “Freshly Pressed” front page blog entries. This is the third such recognition for People-triggers. Thank you to the folks at WordPress, and to you reading this. I appreciate you very much.]
- Pressure points and performance: Choking and panic (sportsscientists.com)
- What the Dog Saw: Malcolm Gladwell Book Review (condofire.com)
- Our National Malcolm Gladwell Obsession (blogs.forbes.com)
- The Upside of Stress (psychologytoday.com)
- Mild stress can affect performance at work (dailymail.co.uk)
- Flow of Alpha Brain Waves (flowpsychology.com)