May 10, 2013

There are few situations more anxiety producing than taking a test — especially a standardized test. For many of us, knowing that one score can alter your future is enough to produce butterflies, nail-biting and weak knees. But what if you could harness that anxiety and turn it into a tool for your success?

Bestselling authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue in their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing that you can do just that. In a recent study, scientists focused on two groups of Harvard students taking the GREs. Before the test, researchers told one group of students that anxiety could actually improve their performance. And indeed those students scored 50 points higher on their practice GREs. On the actual test, the group that had been encouraged scored a stunning 65 points higher. 

The results of the study show that we can prime ourselves to thrive in stressful situations, argues Bronson. Being able to harness anxiety could be a game changer for anyone who is successful on a daily basis, but has trouble performing under stress.

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Cool under pressure or a ball of anxiety — the root cause can be found in your brain. Credit: Jens Lagner / Flickr Creative Commons

The Worrier Gene

What separates those who dread tests days from those who don’t sweat an impending exam? Genetics, says Merryman. Some people have an allele, called methionine, that slows the brain’s reabsorption of the hormone dopamine. In a stressful situation, those with the allele have a flood of dopamine in the brain, creating the sensation of worry.  

“The nickname for [people with this allele] is they’re the worriers,” Merryman explains. “In periods of stress … they have that flood of dopamine to the brain, and the brain just sort of shuts down.”

If you’re a worrier, don’t lose hope. Merryman says that your brain can adjust to routine stress — meaning you can thrive in high-pressure situations as long as you they’re familiar to you.  

“Worriers can do really well if they’re accustomed to a stressful environment,” she explains. “On a day-to-day basis — presenting to the board, making a speech — you can get used to that. It doesn’t mean you don’t get stressed at all, but you can get used to it and perform really well.

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Why are there fewer female politicians? Maybe because they're less likely to run. Leader Nancy Pelosi / Flickr Creative Commons

Striking a Balance

But women’s careful evaluation of the odds can also help them succeed. When researchers at the University of Texas looked at 3 million quarterly financial estimates done by 20,000 different analysts, they found that women were 7.3 percent more accurate at predicting a company’s earnings.

“It’s a strength or a weakness depending on the context,” she says. “For me, as a woman, I just want to ask myself, when I’m faced with a risk, can I look past whether or not I’m going to win or lose and look to the value in what the experience is?”

So if you’re someone who tends to shy away from failure, or doesn’t perform well in stressful situations, just think back to the experiment with Harvard students taking the GRE. None of us are stuck with an inherent level of competitiveness. We can work on processing information in ways that increase our chances of success.

So go ahead and dread #2 pencils and test days — just harness the dread to your advantage. 

Nancy Pelosi


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by Greenhouse | data

Body and Mind, competition, Ashley Merryman, Po Bronson

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