If You’ve Got a Great Working Memory, You May Freeze Under Pressure!

May 31, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image working memory

‘Higher Working Memory’ Linked To ‘More Easily Distracted’

Working memory – the cognitive function responsible for holding information, interrogating it, manipulating it, and using it in our thinking – has been described as the ‘search engine of the mind’. It helps us to delegate certain ‘tasks’ to the area of the brain that can do something with it. It’s also described as ‘an extra pair of hands available for mental juggling.’

And it’s clear that some of us have a far greater capacity of the so-called ‘working memory’ than others. Perhaps it’s no wonder that those of us with a higher degree of working memory capacity also tend to do well in exams!

But recent research in the US and summarised in the BPS Digest shows that a subset of those with a high capacity for this mental agility are also more likely to ‘freeze’ or ‘ choke’ under pressure.

Why would this be?

This new study reports that some of those who have this higher memory capacity also have a high degree of ‘distractibility’. That is, some have poor attention levels and are easily distracted by anxiety and this in turn causes their usual memory capability to break down when the pressure is on.

Sattizahna and his colleagues tested 83 participants using the Flanker Task to measure their attention control. Then they were tested on mental arithmetic questions: firstly with no pressure and then under pressure from peers, public ‘shaming’ and a monetary incentive. Finally, they were asked to complete two tests of working memory capacity.

The results were clear. The results showed that the performance of some of those with high working memory capacity was adversely impacted by being in a high pressure situation – but pressure did not affect those with lower working memory capacity. This replicated a previous study.

But what is different in Sattizahna’s work is the inclusion of this measure of attentional control.

It meant that they could show that only those with high working memory participants and poor attentional control showed evidence of this so-called ‘choking under pressure’.

There may be some elements of the research design that could be improved and a follow up study may be needed. For example, why was working memory capacity at the end of the experiment as one could assume that the test result has already been affected by the previous tasks. It would also be useful to see the participants’ absolute performance on the arithmetic puzzles that was needed to solve. Are those with high working memory still better than those low in working memory?

Nonetheless, it may be that for those who ‘freeze’ or get distracted when under pressure and find it difficult to work through a problem, and yet when the pressure if off, are able to focus and sail through it, could have a combination of poor attentional control and a high working memory.


Sattizahna, J. R., Moserb. J. S.,  & Beilocka, S.L.  (2016, December). A Closer Look at Who ‘Chokes Under Pressure’. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4)

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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