Why You Choke

Previously, I’ve written about why you should stop caring.  But it seems that’s harder than we’d like.

Our brains – the very things that come up with all those great improv ideas – are out to sabotage us.  In this Psychology Today article, researchers tried to figure out why we choke.

Big show, big audition, important audience member, you name it.  The pressure’s on.  And it crushes some of us.  The article says when our potential reward is low, our performance is better.  Raise the reward and we start to suck.  Think of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  As the potential payday increases, people get more tentative.  Hesitancy in an improv show will kill you.

There’s a stupid part of our stupid brains – the ventral striatum.  It lights on fire when we hear about a great opportunity.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when it comes to performance time, the exact same part of our brains slows down, and we fumble.  Seems like manufacturer error.

The article says the people most likely to choke are those who have (or think they have) the most to lose.  What do you have to lose when you’re goofing around with your friends?  Nothing.  What do you have to lose in that audition in front of Lorne Michaels?  Trick question.  The answer is nothing.

To lose something, you have to have it.  An audition is a lottery ticket.  Only once you know the result is it worth something.  Let’s say you went in front of a casting agent and literally took a dump.   You dropped trou and squeezed out a giant dook.  You probably wouldn’t get that job.  But what if you knew your lines and gave the best performance of your life?  You still may not get the job.  There are a million variables you can’t control.  The pooper and the pro “lost” the same thing: Nothing.

Now, the ventral striatum is probably very useful if you have a pocket full of diamonds and you’re walking through a bad neighborhood.  It tells you to be on alert.  After all, you’ve got a pocketful of diamonds and there’s danger all around you.

But what if you had a pocketful of dirt?  You probably wouldn’t want to be in a bad neighborhood, but at least you know anyone trying to mug you is going to get a fistful of nada.

Is there a way to trick that stupid ventral striatum into thinking a high stakes scenario is the same as a low stakes situation?  I might think of all the times I’ve bombed on stage.  I might think of how hard that guy in class made my improv teacher laugh, and how that guy eventually gave up.  I might think of how the core of me cannot be destroyed or enhanced by any opportunity.

When a door opens, you may walk through or you may be prevented from doing so.  But if you prevent yourself from walking through because you feel danger, you’ve already screwed yourself.  The safety is on the other side of the doorway, one way or another.  The longer you stand around waiting to go through, the more you choke.  Just go.  Boldly.  Pick up the pieces or pop the cork once the verdict is rendered.  There are always other doors.

And the ventral striatum is just a lump of meat in your head.  Don’t get outsmarted by that.

More on the subject of “choking” from The New Yorker.

And even more: “Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little.”

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com


One response to “Why You Choke

  1. Reblogged this on The Year of Improv and commented:
    Been meaning to write about choking under pressure – why it’s good to stay out of your head. This blog aptly states that.

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