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Choking Under Pressure Isn't Unique to Humans

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How can there be massive changes in neural activity and really minimal changes in kinematics? We’re wrestling with how this is possible.

Steve ChaseProfessor, Biomedical Engineering and the Neuroscience Institute , Carnegie Mellon University

“Once the right parameters were dialed in and behavior stabilized, I was impressed by how robust the effect was,” explains Adam Smoulder, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon and co-first author of the paper. “It didn’t seem to matter when that jackpot trial occurred; subjects’ performance ebbed and flowed according to the size of the potential payoff.”

Investigating the neural underpinnings of these findings is where the group is headed next. “In the recordings we captured from the subjects’ cerebral cortex, we’re seeing large changes in activity that come about as the reward changes,” explains Steve Chase, professor of biomedical engineeringOpens in new window at Carnegie Mellon and the Neuroscience InstituteOpens in new window. “This is fascinating, because the changes in the movement that differentiate between success and failure are really subtle. Now, we’re wrestling with how is that possible? How can there be massive changes in neural activity and really minimal changes in kinematics?”

The group’s research also demonstrates an important connection between sensory motor processing and emotional processing, historically believed to be unrelated systems.

“Our work opens the door for further exploration into the neuroscience of this phenomenon,” says Aaron Batista, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. “The fact that nonhuman animals also choke under pressure suggests that this behavioral quirk is something our biological systems are just wired to do. We shouldn’t be beating ourselves up over it or blaming professional athletes because they choke under pressure. It’s just something all brains do.”


Smoulder AL, Pavlovsky NP, Marino PJ, et al. Monkeys exhibit a paradoxical decrease in performance in high-stakes scenarios. PNAS. 2021;118(35). doi:10.1073/pnas.2109643118

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