High-IQ people tend to choke under pressure. Here’s how to avoid that.

A new study suggests that reframing goals can help smart people avoid choking under pressure.

  • A recent study examined how goal-setting interacts with performance among people of varying intellectual capabilities.
  • People with higher general mental abilities appear to perform worse when being directly measured along the lines of performance.
  • Interestingly, these individuals' performance greatly improves when they were encouraged to simply do their best.

Smart people are more likely to choke in high-pressure situations, but interestingly this disadvantage seems to vanish when goals are framed strategically.

That's the takeaway of a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It suggests an ironic reason for why people with high general mental ability (GMA) often become mentally overwhelmed in complex, dynamic working environments: Their strong mental capacity leaves them vulnerable to performance anxieties and intrusive thoughts.

The researchers hypothesized that reframing goals for these individuals might change performance. To test that idea, they asked 261 undergraduate business students to participate in a stock market experiment. Each student was placed in one of three groups, each oriented toward a different type of goal: Performance, learning, or do-your-best.

The researchers measured each student's GMA and told them they'd have to estimate the value of a set of stocks using a few financial indicators provided to them. At first, the students weren't sure how the measures related to the stock prices, but after each guess they were shown the correct price, and how closely the given indicators predicted that price. As the day went on, the researchers quietly manipulated the experiment in the same ways across all three groups to test how participants adapted. The researchers added:

  • Dynamic complexity by changing which financial indicators best predicted the stock prices.
  • Component complexity by adding more financial indicators to the mix.
  • Coordinator complexity by making all of the indicators equally predictive of the stock price.

The results showed that high-GMA participants performed at about the same level as low-GMA students when the goal was to measure performance. But when high-GMA people were simply trying to do their best, they noticeably outperformed those in the low-GMA category.

Interestingly, this suggests that the type of goal-setting strategy that'd work best for you depends on your general mental ability: If you score on the lower end, you may want to focus on setting goals with specific performance measures in mind. On the higher end, those who score higher might pick strategies that de-emphasize performance altogether, therefore minimizing pressure.

The third strategy that also seemed advantageous for high-GMA participants was to set learning goals, which involves coming up with various ways to solve problems — placing the focus on the process and not the outcome.

The 'fixed mindset' problem

Although it wasn't directly measured by the recent study, it's worth noting a similar phenomenon: Smart people who develop a "fixed mindset" in which they believe qualities like skill and intelligence are fixed traits, have a hard time — practically and emotionally — engaging in activities they're not instantly good at. Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck writes about this at length in her book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success".

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

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It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

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  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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