Here is a draft of the start of of chapter 4 of my forthcoming book, Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind
Sometimes, when it really matters, everything falls apart. A vivid example of this occurred during the 2011 Republican primary presidential debate when Texas governor Rick Perry, in explaining how, if he were elected, he would eliminate three government agencies, couldn’t call to mind the phrase “the department of energy”: “The third agency of government I would do away with,” the Governor proclaimed, “the education, the uh, the commerce and let’s see, I can’t—the third one. I can’t. Sorry. Oops.” He curtailed his presidential campaign shortly after this.
Though other explanations are possible, it seems that Perry’s monumental choke was in part due to his heightened state of anxiety over how well he was going to be perceived; his worry apparently interfered with his ability to bring to mind a phrase which in some sense he knew very well—after all, he had been railing against the department of energy nearly every day during the months leading up to the debate. But how does anxiety cause a choke? The psychologist Sian Beilock claims that “highly practiced skills become automatic, so performance may actually be damaged by introspection, which is characteristic of an earlier, consciously-mediated stage.” Anxiety, on her view, prompts choking because it causes experts to think about what they are doing. Beilock’s advice: “Distract yourself…don’t give yourself too much time to think, focus on the outcome, not the mechanics… [and] just do it.” But is this view about the relationship between anxiety and skill correct? Do high pressure situations induce experts to focus on what they are doing? And is there a causal connection between thinking and poor performance at the expert level? In other words, does thinking interfere with doing?