Why we make silly mistakes under pressure

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

studying
Can he handle the pressure?

Whether it’s during an intense game of basketball or a very important test, the last few seconds of any activity can make us choke! For example, when I have to do my math homework, I only use my calculator when I need to multiply long numbers. However, when I’m taking a math test, I use my calculator to multiply twelve times twelve, just to be safe, especially in the last few minutes of my final! What is it about these last few moments that really pressure us to be perfect, and why are they so stressful?

Well, according to research from the University of California, Santa Barbara, it’s because we think too much about the situation and mess up our practice. You see, our muscles and our brains have memories of their own. After a lot of practice, you don’t even need to think about what you’re doing before it becomes automatic. For example, if you shoot basketballs every day for fun, your “muscle memory” learns how to make the shots on its own. You don’t have to do a thing, but when you’re in an intense game, and “think” about making a shot, it interferes with your memory! In my case, I’ve been in school for years, and multiplication is almost as automatic as breathing. Yet, when I’m taking a test and think I need to use my calculator, my doubts and my thoughts really mess me up.

“We call it overthinking,” said neuroscientist Taraz Lee, the leader of the study. “The part of the brain [responsible for planning, executive function, and working memory] may be telling parts of the brain that control muscles to do something they are not supposed to be doing,” he continued. “So it can wrestle control from the automatic plan and try to pay attention to the step-by-step control of a free throw or something like that.”

According to the researchers, our best chance for success when we are in high-stakes situations is to simply not think about the circumstances too much. If you’re worried about making that shot or answering that question, just practice, practice, and practice until it becomes ingrained in your memory.

Featured image courtesy of Kenneth B. Moore on Flickr