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Johns Hopkins Health - Cool Under Pressure

Summer 2015
Issue No. 29

Cool Under Pressure

Date: July 2, 2015

Johns Hopkins researchers get to the bottom of why—and when—people “choke” when everything is on the line.


Just about everyone can recall a time or two (at least!) when they lost their composure at the worst possible moment—when giving a presentation or taking a test, for example. It’s a phenomenon we’re all prone to, but for different reasons, according to new Johns Hopkins research.

After monitoring the brain activity of young adults as they faced a series of skilled tasks and varying incentives, Vikram Chib, Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering professor, and his team found that the part of the brain that processes reward and helps control movement acts differently in individuals who dread losing, compared with those who aren’t so afraid of loss. “Framing incentives as either potential gains or losses had a profound effect on performance outcomes,” says Chib. “But the effects were different depending on how much a person fears losing.”

Apply It to Your Goals

If you’re particularly afraid of losing ... use that fear to help you succeed. Viewing your task as a high-stakes potential loss, not a gain, could help you reach your goal.

(For example: If I don’t nail this speech, I won’t hang on to my committee chair spot.)

If you’re not turned off by risks ... stay focused on the prize. (Ace this speech, and that promotion is mine!) “Really what we’re talking about is a shift in thinking to improve performance,” says Chib.

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