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Performance Under Pressure

By Macaela Mackenzie
Vikram Chib
Vikram Chib is a Johns Hopkins neuroscientist.

Having an audience may sound anxiety inducing, but according to new research, the presence of onlookers might actually improve your performance.

“It seems counterintuitive, but there are a lot of studies that show that if you have a small audience watching you, you tend to get better at your performance,” says Vikram Chib, a Johns Hopkins neuroscientist.

In their own experiment, Chib and his team asked participants to play a simple video game for a small cash prize to be determined by how well they did. But the researchers were really interested in studying what was happening in the participants’ brains, so while they performed their task in front of two onlookers, Chib collected brain images via an fMRI scanner.

“It seems counterintuitive, but there are a lot of studies that show that if you have a small audience watching you, you tend to get better at your performance.”

It turned out that the presence of an “audience” lit up two brain regions associated with social cognition and rewards. That combo then triggered activity in a brain region called the ventral striatum, which is tied to motivation and motor skills. “Activity in that area seems to be predictive of how you’re going to perform,” Chib says. “The more your ventral striatum is influenced by the incentives on the line—whether social or monetary— you get big differences in your performance.”

There is one potential caveat: The performance boost might only work in the presence of a small audience. “There’s a sweet spot,” Chib says. While the presence of a few onlookers can up your game, a large audience—say, a lecture hall full of colleagues during a presentation—can have the opposite effect. When “there’s more social incentive on the line,” he explains, “you’re more likely to be worried about what all these people are thinking of you.”

In Chib’s previous research, he looked at how this phenomenon can cause people to choke under pressure while performing tasks, such as playing a video game. Again, brain scans pointed to the ventral striatum. Wild swings in activity—thinking about the glory of performing well versus visualizing humiliating defeat—messed with motor skills.

While specific strategies need to be tested, Chib says the study suggests that “doing tasks in front of people can actually make you a little bit better.” Practicing a presentation in front of a couple of friends, for example, can boost your performance— and potentially even prepare you to do better when in front of that lecture hall.

Michael Hirshon

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