Are the smartest people the most likely to fail under pressure?


Yes. Smarter people are more likely to use their cognitive horsepower to find the right answers while the sub-brilliant rely on shortcuts.

When the pressure is on, it becomes very hard to brute force solutions and bright people have to switch to shortcuts. Much is lost in the transition. People with less working memory panic but don’t suffer the performance decrease because they rely on shortcuts from the beginning.

Via Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To:

So, you might be surprised to learn that it was our higher-powered students— the ones with the most working-memory— who performed the worst under pressure. Higher-powered students— the ones with the most working-memory— fail under pressure. Not surprisingly, students with higher working-memory did out-perform everyone else by about 10 percent when the mod math problems were just for practice. But when the pressure was on, the performance of those highest in cognitive horsepower fell to the level of those who were lowest. The performance of individuals with lower working-memory didn’t decline under pressure. Why?


Marci and I found that students with higher working-memories were more likely to go through the subtraction and division steps to get to the right answer precisely because they have the cognitive horsepower to compute answers in this way—“ if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” Instead, students with lower working-memory were more likely to rely on simpler shortcuts. Under low-stress conditions, using more brainpower gets you further. That is why higher-working-memory individuals perform the best in practice situations. Under pressure, however, a majority of our high-powered students panicked and actually switched to the shortcuts that the lower-powered students normally used. Low-powered students also panicked, but because their usual shortcuts don’t require a lot of effort (remember, they are essentially no more than good guesses), they stuck with them and their performance didn’t drop under stress.

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