When Quebec tennis player Frédéric Niemeyer beat Russian Igor Kunitsyn at the Rogers Cup this week, fans were stunned. How to explain the Canadian’s dramatic victory, given he’s ranked 487 while his opponent holds the 39th spot in the world? Niemeyer kept Kunitsyn off balance on the court, but there may have been more than big serves at play. Perhaps, the Russian simply succumbed to the dreaded fate that haunts every athlete—and the rest of us: choking under pressure.
Scientists are just now starting to understand what happens in our brains when we try to achieve a goal, but fail. In a recent study, published in Psychological Science, British and Danish researchers examined the brains of more than a dozen people attempting to earn monetary rewards while playing a video game. Their conclusion: the more participants wanted to succeed, the worse they performed.
This is called over-motivation or incentive-based theory, says Dean Mobbs at the University London College, and an author of the study. “This is when you want something really bad and you have tunnel vision towards it,” he explains. “You narrow your attention and you forget about everything else.” Until now, most research has focused on two possible explanations for why we choke. Distraction theory suggests that external commotion, such as the intense fervor of fans, impairs our concentration. Explicit-monitoring occurs when a person over thinks an act that is usually automatic, which is common among soccer players taking penalty kicks.
Participants in the recent study were hooked up to an MRI machine while playing a video game, similar to Pac-Man, with the goal of capturing a prize worth 50 pence or five pounds. They each filled out a questionnaire to help the researchers gauge how motivated they were to get the money. Of the participants who were deemed most eager to win, there was an increase in activity in the ventral mid-brain. This is where dopamine cells are in the brain; dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with incentive and motivational drive, says Mobbs. As this increased brain activity occurred, the participants made more impulsive errors. In contrast, participants who were less motivated to get the money saw an increase in activity in the pre-frontal areas of the brain, which are associated with control, technical skills and cognition. “They tended to be better at controlling their behaviour,” says Mobbs, and were more focused.
This suggests that excess activity in the mid-brain caused by over-motivation may obstruct optimal decision-making, says Mobbs. While incentives and rewards can be good motivators, Mobbs says they can also backfire: “There’s a thin line, a certain point where people cross, and their performance can decrease.” Mobbs says an important way to counteract over-motivation is recognizing that too much enthusiasm can cloud one’s ability to concentrate and perform tasks. “I’ve got a feeling that if we’d said [to the participants], ‘You’re making these errors because you’re becoming impulsive. Now regulate your emotions’, they would do better,” says Mobbs. So get your motivation under control. No pressure though.