Many studies have shown we easily confuse our feelings:
Ariely thinks it might have something to do with “misattribution of emotions”: “Sometimes we have an emotion and we don’t know where it’s coming from, so we kind of stick it on something that seems sensible.”
The rush from a Red Bull and a roller coaster can make us believe we’re in love with the person next to us. We can even fall in love with someone trying to kill us because we mistake the stress for attraction.
Can we turn this “misattribution of emotions” to our advantage? Maybe.
We might be able to “reinterpret” stress as excitement. Studies show the physiological states are the same, it’s only how we choose to see them that is different.
For some of the students, the higher their cortisol levels, the worse their math performance. Others, however, showed a very different pattern of results: the higher their cortisol levels, the better they performed! When Andrew took a closer look at what was driving this difference, he found something rather interesting: those people who did the worst when their cortisol was highest were also the ones who had, in a previous experimental session, professed to be extremely anxious about doing math. The people who performed better as their cortisol went up were the ones who were not at all math-anxious.
Of course, we already know that people who are overly anxious about math are likely to stress out when put in a math-testing situation. After all, highly math-anxious individuals are categorized as such because they get sweaty palms, a queasy stomach, and rocketing cortisol levels when they are faced with the prospect of doing math. Students who were low in math anxiety also had the same high cortisol levels and concomitant bodily reactions in the testing situation, but they just interpreted their physiological reaction differently. Interpreting the situation and your bodily response in a positive rather than a negative light may be a key to performing well when it counts the most.
This is good news, especially for a student about to do a problem at the board in class, and even for you when you find yourself in a highly stressful situation— say, when you are getting ready to give a big speech or negotiate an important business deal. If you can manage to interpret your body’s response to the situation as positive, as a call to action, you are likely to thrive. But if you interpret your body’s response as a sign that you are in a bad place with no way out, the worries and ruminations that result may send you into a “choke.”
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