News Release

While under pressure those most likely to succeed will most likely fail

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

New research published in the latest issue of Psychological Science finds that individuals higher in working memory capacity (HWM) are more likely to be negatively impacted by performance pressure on math tests than those lower in working memory capacity (LWM). Working memory is a short-term system that holds information relevant to performance and ensures task focus. HWMs have superior attentional allocation capacities-- more resources, which they use on a regular basis. "However, if this attention capacity is compromised, e.g. by worries about the situation and its consequences, high working memory individuals' advantage disappears," the authors explain. Under low-pressure conditions, HWMs outperform LWMs. However, when the pressure is on, HWMs failed, while LWMs performance did not deviate from their, albeit lower, scores.

Ninety-three Michigan State University undergraduates were analyzed. They were divided into HWM and LWM groups based on their scores on two working memory tests. They completed one low-pressure and one high-pressure test, each consisting of twenty-four math problems. The former was treated as practice, while the latter was presented in a high-pressure environment involving commonly seen real-world pressure. Participants were told they were part of a "team effort" where an improved score would earn both team members a monetary reward (monetary incentives and peer pressure). They were also told they were being videotaped so local math teachers and professors could evaluate them (social evaluation). Since working memory is known to predict many higher levels function, this report questions the ability of high-stakes tests e.g. SAT, GRE, LSAT, MCAT to predict who are most likely to succeed in future academic endeavors.


This study is published in the current issue of Psychological Science. To receive a pdf of this article please contact

The flagship journal of the American Psychological Society, Psychological Science publishes authoritative articles of interest across all of psychological science, including brain and behavior, clinical science, cognition, learning and memory, social psychology, and developmental psychology.

Sian Beilock is an Assistant Professor in the area of Brian & Cognitive Sciences in the department of Psychology at Miami University of Ohio. Dr. Beilock's research focuses on skill expertise and "choking under pressure."

Dr. Beilock is available for questions and interviews.

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