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How to cope under pressure, according to psychology
What's your "stress mindset"?
You're preparing for an important meeting, and the pressure's on. If it's bad now, how will you cope when you actually have to perform? Will you fly? Or will you sink?
Psychologists have a lot to say about how to cope under pressure… both the chronic kind, which might involve ongoing high expectations at work, for example; and the acute, single-event variety such as a vital meeting, a make-or-break presentation, or a sports match.
The stress mindset
A concept that's increasingly recognised as important in relation to pressure is your "stress mindset". If you recognise that stressful challenges can sharpen your focus, strengthen your motivation, and offer learning and achievement opportunities, then you have a "positive" stress mindset. In contrast, viewing stress as unpleasant, debilitating and negative constitutes a "negative" stress mindset. And there's evidence that this is harmful. A 2017 study led by Anne Casper found that when faced with a day that they know is going to be challenging, people with a positive stress mindset come up with coping strategies, boost their performance, and end the day feeling more energised. For people with a negative stress mindset, the opposite happens.
Alia Crum at Stanford University is one of the best-known advocates of the positive stress mindset. She's found that it's not just adults who benefit. In a study of adolescents, Crum and her colleagues found that those who believed in the potential benefits of stress were less prone to feeling stressed in the wake of difficult life events. "These findings suggest that changing the way adolescents think about stress may help protect them from acting impulsively when confronted with adversity," the researchers concluded.
If you do have a negative stress mindset, there are ways to turn it around. In another study, Crum's team found that adult participants who'd watched a film clip that focused on the "enhancing" nature of stress, and were then put into a stressful social situation, afterwards felt more positive and showed greater cognitive flexibility than participants who'd first watched a "stress is bad" clip.
If you're feeling anxious because you're under increased pressure at work, or there's a particularly challenging opportunity/stressful event (you now know which adjective you should pick…) coming up, one short-term fix might be to go and watch a horror movie. Deliberately scaring ourselves can calm the brain, leading to a "recalibration of our emotions," according to a US study led by Margee Kerr which involved visitors to an immersive theatre attraction at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh. Those volunteers who were more stressed or tired beforehand showed the biggest emotional benefits afterwards.
There is also some tentative evidence from Heidi Fritz and others that taking a cheerful perspective on life is associated with less stress over time, while self-defeating humour — the sort that involves disparaging yourself — is associated with more distress.
The evidence from this particular study is not strong. But some support for the idea that trying to big yourself up, rather than to put yourself down, can help in high pressure situations comes from a study in which Sonia Kang at the University of Toronto and her team studied a group of MBA students. The researchers put some into positions of low power in a negotiating situation, and found that these participants performed worse under pressure than those who'd been given more power over the outcome. However, when "low power" students first spent five minutes writing about their most important negotiating skill, this neutralised the power differential effect on performance. "Anytime you have low expectations for performance, you tend to sink down and meet those low expectations," Kang observed. "Self-affirmation is a way to neutralize that threat."
However, if you are going into a negotiating situation, you may also want to bear this in mind: when put under time pressure, people tend to act more like themselves, according to a recent paper in Nature Communications. Researchers Fandong Chen and Ian Krajbich, based in China and the US, found that when there was little time available to make a decision about how to divide a pot of money, selfish people tended to act more selfishly than usual, while pro-social people behaved even more pro-socially. In theory, either could be useful — depending on what you want out of an interaction.
However, time pressure can also improve decision-making, according to a simulation of a realistic disaster event overseen by Liverpool's Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology. It's thought that this is because it forces people to make tough decisions — and when these people are experts, they're more likely to be the right ones.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
A helping hand
Whether you're a hospital manager awaiting an influx of injured patients, or a lecturer or a student about to go into a vital meeting or exam, you're likely approaching the point of maximum pressure. What can help?
You might hope for a text message from a friend or romantic partner. Recent research from Emily Hooker and colleagues confirms that sending a text to a partner confronted with a difficult task really can make them feel more supported. This particular study involved 75 women who were asked to do a set of stressful tasks, including mental maths and public speaking, while their blood pressure and heart rate were recorded. While they were waiting to perform, some received text messages from their romantic partner, who was waiting in another room. These scripted texts were either explicitly supportive (for example, "Don't worry. It's just a psych study. You'll be fine"), whereas others were more mundane ("It's cold in here").
Analysis of the physiological data revealed that the mundane texts, though not the "supportive" ones, reduced the women's blood pressure during both preparation and the task itself. When you're under psychological pressure, being reminded that there's someone out there who really cares for you seems to be more helpful than receiving targeted advice. In fact, the potential risks of offering "helpful" advice have been highlighted in other work. A recent meta-analysis of 142 studies looking at how to help struggling employees concluded that simply making job-related support available — for example, new equipment or career counselling — is often helpful, but overtly discussing a problem can backfire. "That finding might be because not all support is good support," said Michael Mathieu at San Francisco State University, who led the study. For example, reaching out to try to help a co-worker might be taken as an insult, he suggests.
If your partner somehow neglects to send a simple reminder of their implicit support before you go into your important meeting, or stand up to give that paper, they may still be able to help you. Just visualising your partner can moderate your body's physiological response to stress, according to research at the University of Arizona led by Kyle Bourassa. (In this study, the stressor was physical – volunteers had to submerge their feet into cold water – but in theory, the same effect could hold for other forms of stress.) In some trials, participants actually had their partner in the same room. These people reported less pain than those who just imagined that their partner was there, but the blood pressure data for the two groups were statistically equivalent. "The results suggest that accessing the mental representation of a romantic partner and a partner's presence each buffer against exaggerated acute stress responses to a similar degree," the researchers write.
Choking and clutch
It's possible that, in modulating physiological arousal, this kind of technique may reduce the risk of choking under pressure. This phenomenon is familiar to many of us. When the pressure gets "too much", our skills suddenly deteriorate, and we perform more poorly than we, or anyone else, expected. Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon has been extensively studied in sport. One analysis of the performance of elite tennis players, led by Danny Cohen-Zada, concluded that the male players were about twice as adversely affected by high pressure as the female players, perhaps because men typically show a bigger spike in levels of the stress hormone cortisol when under pressure than women do. ("Our robust evidence that women can respond better than men to competitive pressure is compelling," the researchers noted.)
The opposite to choking under pressure is sometimes called "clutch performance". A group led by Christian Swann at the University of Wollongong, Australia interviewed 16 top athletes and asked them to describe what they were thinking and feeling during a recent outstanding "clutch" performance. This led them to identify 12 characteristics associated with excelling under pressure. Six were similar to the state of flow (they became so involved in their task they became unaware of the crowd, for example). But six were different. They included being deliberately focused on the task in hand, maintaining intense effort over a period of time, feeling high arousal levels, and not thinking about what would happen if they failed. The athletes talked about making a big effort to monitor their own performance as they played, to raise their game. (It's worth noting that though the athletes talked about feeling high levels of arousal, their actual physiological arousal was not monitored. There's certainly work finding that arousal helps with performance — only to a point.)
It's interesting that the athletes mentioned not thinking about the negative consequences of failure. Because this brings us back to mindsets. Work published earlier this year (led by Vikram Chib) found that simply altering how you view what's at stake in a high-pressure situation can dramatically reduce the risk of choking.
The participants in this study were asked to play a computer-based game in which they could win money. But when they were instructed to imagine that they already had the high prize money on offer, and were playing for the chance to keep it, rather than to gain it, they were much less likely to choke. (The researchers tied this to altered levels of activity in a region of the brain called the ventral striatum.) A skin conductance measure also showed that this reappraisal prevented heightened stress when they failed. Playing make-believe had, it seems, taken the pressure out of the situation.
More work needs to be done to explore the potential benefits of this approach, as well as the positive stress mindset, in real-world situations. But next time you're under pressure to perform, why not try embracing the opportunity to achieve — and imagine that you've already succeeded?
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Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
- Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
- One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
- EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
The achievement is an important milestone in quantum computing, Google's scientists said.
- Sycamore is a quantum computer that Google has spent years developing.
- Like traditional computers, quantum computers produce binary code, but they do so while utilizing unique phenomena of quantum mechanics.
- It will likely be years before quantum computing has applications in everyday technology, but the recent achievement is an important proof of concept.
How quantum computers differ from traditional computers<p>Like traditional computers, quantum computers produce binary code to execute computing functions. But instead of using transistors to represent the ones and zeroes, as traditional computers do, quantum computers like Sycamore use quantum bits, or "qubits."</p><p>Qubits are extremely tiny pieces of hardware that act like subatomic particles, utilizing quantum phenomena like entanglement, superposition, and interference. Qubits can represent ones and zeroes. But thanks to superposition, qubits are also able to represent multiple states at the same time, meaning they can make calculations much faster than traditional computers. That's what helped Sycamore recently outperform a supercomputer.</p><p>Sycamore achieved "quantum supremacy," which occurs when a quantum computer can do something that a traditional computer cannot. To pass this benchmark, Google engineers pit Sycamore against the world's leading supercomputer, Summit, which is housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.</p><p>"Summit is currently the world's leading supercomputer, capable of carrying out about 200 million billion operations per second," William Oliver, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03173-4" target="_blank">"News and Views" piece</a> for <em>Nature</em>.</p><p>But the contest between Sycamore and Summit involved a highly specific task, one that was specifically designed to give a competitive edge to a quantum computer like Sycamore.</p>
Beating the world's leading supercomputer<p>The task involved estimating how likely it was that a processor would produce some "bitstrings" more often than others. As you continue to add information to the equation, it becomes exponentially difficult for traditional computers to conduct the calculations. (You can read more about the experiment <a href="https://ai.googleblog.com/2019/10/quantum-supremacy-using-programmable.html" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p><p>"We performed a fixed set of operations that entangles 53 qubits into a complex superposition state," Ben Chiaro, a graduate student researcher in the Martinis Group, which conducted the experiment, told <em><a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/10/191023133358.htm" target="_blank">Science Daily</a></em>. "This superposition state encodes the probability distribution. For the quantum computer, preparing this superposition state is accomplished by applying a sequence of tens of control pulses to each qubit in a matter of microseconds. We can prepare and then sample from this distribution by measuring the qubits a million times in 200 seconds."</p><p>"For classical computers, it is much more difficult to compute the outcome of these operations because it requires computing the probability of being in any one of the 2^53 possible states, where the 53 comes from the number of qubits -- the exponential scaling is why people are interested in quantum computing to begin with," Brooks Foxen, another graduate student researcher in the Martinis Group, told <em>Science Daily</em>. "This is done by matrix multiplication, which is expensive for classical computers as the matrices become large."</p><p>But the specific nature of this task has led some to question the utility of quantum computers like Sycamore.</p><p>"One criticism we've heard a lot is that we cooked up this contrived benchmark problem—[Sycamore] doesn't do anything useful yet," Hartmut Neven, a Google engineering director said at a press event on Wednesday. "That's why we like to compare it to a Sputnik moment. Sputnik didn't do much either. All it did was circle Earth. Yet it was the start of the Space Age."</p>
A proof of concept for quantum computing<p>Although it could be decades until we see quantum computing powering everyday devices, Sycamore serves as a proof of concept that there exists a form of computing that has the potential to be vastly superior to traditional computing.</p><p>"This demonstration of quantum supremacy over today's leading classical algorithms on the world's fastest supercomputers is truly a remarkable achievement and a milestone for quantum computing," Oliver wrote in his piece for <em>Nature</em>. "It experimentally suggests that quantum computers represent a model of computing that is fundamentally different from that of classical computers. It also further combats criticisms about the controllability and viability of quantum computation in an extraordinarily large computational space (containing at least the 253 states used here)."</p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks, and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.
- The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
- Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
- Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Real ways you can help stop child trafficking<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="21fc2dc85391501eec28c4bf46d7db15"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/AXL0q9jNZGU?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Williams is the founder and CEO of <a href="http://www.seenandheard.org/" target="_blank">Seen and Heard</a>, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps foster youth develop character through the performing arts. She's been involved with foster youth for years; I <a href="https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/child-sex-trafficking" target="_self">wrote about her work</a> in child trafficking just over a year ago. Tragically, since that time, the situation for these children has only gotten worse, in large part because of QAnon.</p><p>Williams says child trafficking is an easy cause to rally people together. Fear is also a powerful unifying force, one that QAnon believers are already primed for via the news they consume. Almost every parent cares about their children, making them the ideal target to solidify groups. </p><p>The real problem, she says, is that the youth she works with are falling for these conspiracy theories. Trauma is a particularly powerful tool for indoctrination. If you're a teenager that's been abducted or abused, your trust level is already extremely low. Then you read about a global cabal of powerful men (and a few women) secretly abusing children, and the narrative seems ready-made for your personal history.</p><p>When Williams tried to "lovingly and kindly correct" the youth she was working with after learning about the Wayfair conspiracy, the girls' response was, "well, who owns the media?" </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"She goes from this small little thing to a QAnon talking point. I've been thinking about why she would believe such a preposterous idea—and there are others; it's not just one student, and they're in in deep. I think that when something horrific happens to you as a child, it's a lot easier to distance yourself from the immediate reality that it was an uncle or a parent or a sibling that hurt you. By detaching from that immediate person, they project it onto Bill Gates or Chrissy Teigen. Then it's not so personal, it's global." </p>
A man wear a shirt with the words Q Anon as he attends a rally for President Donald Trump at the Make America Great Again Rally being held in the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on July 31, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>As Williams mentions, there are over 30,000 kids in foster care in the Los Angeles area alone. It's easy to fall through the cracks. The systems in place aren't perfect; they're certainly underfunded. When you're in a system trying to support you yet isn't capable of doing so, viewing the world as imperfect, and even harmful, becomes the lens through which you see reality. Again, this makes for a perfect indoctrination tool.</p><p>One popular QAnon talking point is that 800,000 children are missing. As Williams says, child trafficking experts "don't buy this for a minute." The number makes for a good meme but a poor representation of the problem. </p><p>To source better data, Williams turns to the <a href="https://www.missingkids.org/" target="_blank">National Center for Missing and Exploited Children</a> (NCMEC) and the <a href="https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Crime Information Center</a> (NCIC). An important factor when reading data: if a teacher <em>and</em> a caregiver report a missing child to NCIC, that counts as two children, not one, which accounts for some of the fluctuations in numbers. In total, between 25,000 and 29,000 kids go missing every year. Importantly, 94 percent of those children are recovered within four to six weeks. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They're not documenting the recovery rate. It's not like these numbers are perpetually hanging out there. So this 800,000 number is just ludicrous." </p><p>Williams compares what's going on to Black Lives Matter. Blacking out your Instagram profile picture is performative. It signals that you actually care, which is great, but if you're not supporting Black-owned businesses, for example, there are no teeth to your activism. </p><p>Of course, blacking out your profile doesn't cause the real-world harm the QAnon virus does. Sharing misinformation is ultimately harmful to the children in need of help. Williams offers the resources below—ranging from donations to nonprofits to educational trainings to becoming a foster parent—for people that actually want to do something to help victims of sexual and physical abuse. They might not make a great Twitter meme, but in the actual world, this support makes all the difference. </p><p><strong>To report abuse/neglect, call the child abuse hotline: 800.540.4000 (LA county) / 800.422.4453 (National)</strong></p><ul><li>Support anti-trafficking organizations by donating to <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://savinginnocence.org/" target="_blank">Saving Innocence</a>, which runs the continuum of care from rescue to recovery, <a href="http://gozoe.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Zoe</a>, a reputable faith-based organization, and <a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="https://withtwowings.org/" target="_blank">Two Wings</a>, which helps to rehabilitate female survivors</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://www.nolabrantleyspeaks.org/" target="_blank">Nola Brantley</a> offers in-person and online trainings to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children</li><li><a rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" href="http://instagram.com/imrebeccabender" target="_blank">Rebecca Bender</a> is a trafficking survivor that runs "Myth Busters," which combats conspiracy theory disinformation</li><li>The <a href="https://www.instagram.com/missingkids/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">National Center</a> of Missing and Exploited Children</li><li>Operation <a href="https://www.instagram.com/ourrescue/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Underground Railroad </a></li><li><a href="https://www.instagram.com/defendinnocence/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Defend Innocence</a> offers tips for parents and caregivers to keep kids safe</li></ul><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>