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.

choking hands around neck
  • 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".

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
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