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".

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
Surprising Science

To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

Keep reading Show less

Why we must teach students to solve big problems

The future of education and work will rely on teaching students deeper problem-solving skills.

Future of Learning
  • Asking kids 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' is a question that used to make sense, says Jaime Casap. But it not longer does; the nature of automation and artificial intelligence means future jobs are likely to shift and reform many times over.
  • Instead, educators should foster a culture of problem solving. Ask children: What problem do you want to solve? And what talents or passions do you have that can be the avenues by which you solve it?
  • "[T]he future of education starts on Monday and then Tuesday and then Wednesday and it's constant and consistent and it's always growing, always improving, and if we create that culture I think that would bring us a long way," Casap says.
Keep reading Show less

Allosaurus dabbled in cannibalism according to new fossil evidence

These Jurassic predators resorted to cannibalism when hit with hard times, according to a deliciously rare discovery.

Fig 3. Shed lateral tooth of Allosaurus sp. (MWC 5011) found at the Mygatt-Moore Quarry, white arrow indicates the distal denticles.

Stephanie K. Drumheller et.al
Surprising Science
  • Rare fossil evidence of dinosaur cannibalism among the Allosaurus has been discovered.
  • Scientists analyzed dinosaur bones found in the Mygatt-Moore Quarry in western Colorado, paying special attention to bite marks that were present on 2,368 of the bones.
  • It's likely that the predatory carnivore only ate their already-dead peers during times when resources were scarce.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…