Brilliant: The Science of Smart

The Secret to Grace Under Pressure

The best way to psych yourself up for a test or presentation is to make it seem insignificant. Here's how:

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Linda Davidson / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Sukanya Roy, 14, of Wilkes-Barre, PA spells out the winning word—cymotrichous—at the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals in National Harbor, MD on June 2, 2011.

How do you gear yourself up for a big test, an important presentation, or any other high-pressure situation? Maybe your internal monologue goes something like this: “OK, this is really important. A lot is riding on this. Don’t screw this up. How well I do on this really matters.” Reminding yourself of the high stakes makes intuitive sense as a motivational strategy—but it will actually impede your performance. Instead of spurring you to new heights, it’s likely to increase anxiety and undermine your confidence. Research shows that reminding yourself how unimportant the event is in the big scheme of things is a better tactic, and psychologists have come up with a variety of ingenious ways to help us do so.

Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford University School of Education, conducted a series of experiments designed to reduce test-taking pressures felt by minorities but which wound up revealing a great strategy for everyone. In a 2006 study published in the journal Science, Cohen and his co-authors gave a group of seventh-graders an in-class assignment in which they were presented with a list of values and asked to choose which one was most important to them. The list included phrases like “relationships with friends and family,” “religious values,” “athletic ability,” and “being good at art.” The students then wrote a paragraph about why their value was important to them. (The control group in the study chose a value that was not important to them, and wrote a paragraph about why the value might matter to someone else.)

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This brief writing assignment significantly improved the grades of African-American students, and reduced  the racial achievement gap by 40 percent. Why? The exercise affirmed students’ “self-integrity,” Cohen explains, buttressing their self-worth and alleviating the stress they felt about being evaluated. Cohen and another group of co-authors investigated whether a similar approach would help female college students taking an introductory physics course who might be feeling vulnerable to negative messages about women in science. Once again, students chose their most cherished values from a list and then wrote about why these values were important to them. Conducted just twice during the 15-week course, this intervention had a big impact, “substantially” reducing the difference between men and women in learning and performance and lifting women’s grades from the C range to the B range. These results, reported in the journal Science in 2010, were especially pronounced for women who say they believe the stereotype that men do better than women in physics.

Perhaps the most inventive way to get students to focus on the bigger picture of what matters to them was introduced by a group of researchers from Germany and Austria in an article published in the European Journal of Social Psychology last year. They asked university students to think about their ancestors by drawing a family tree or by writing an essay imagining how their forebears lived and what advice they would give them. The students who thought and wrote about their ancestors did better on subsequent intelligence tests than members of the control group (who were asked to think instead about their most recent trip to the supermarket).

Why would reflecting on our great-great-grandparents help us perform better? The authors of the study note that such musings “mostly remind us about eventful and successful lives. Normally, our ancestors managed to overcome a multitude of personal and societal problems, such as severe illnesses, wars, loss of loved ones or severe economic declines. So, when we think about them, we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities.” So the next time you have to prepare for a high-pressure event, remember that compared to world wars and great depressions, a test or a presentation should be a snap.

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