Stress Helps Confident Students, Hurts Anxious Peers

Recent research by Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago, establishes a clear relationship between working memory, math anxiety and salivary cortisol. According to Beilock, “We found that cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can either be tied to a student’s poor performance on a math test or contribute to success, depending on the frame of mind of the student going into the test.” As summarized by Science Daily,

“Among people with large working memories (those who were typically the most talented) rising cortisol either led to a performance boost or a performance flop – depending on whether they were already anxious about math. For students without a fear of math, the more their cortisol increased during the test, the better they performed – for these confident students, the body’s response to stress actually pushed them to greater heights. In contrast, for students with more anxiety about math, surging cortisol was tied to poor performance.”

Beilock explains,

“Under stress, we have a variety of bodily reactions; how we interpret these reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure. If a student interprets their physiological response as a sign they are about to fail, they will. And, when taking a math test, students anxious about math are likely to do this. But the same physiological response can also be linked to success if a student’s outlook is positive.”

To read more, visit Science Daily or check out Beilock’s new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To,¬†or recent papers: “Choking Under Pressure: Multiple Routes to Skill Failure” (Journal of Experimental Psychology) and “Choke or Thrive? The Relation between Salivary Cortisol and Math Performance Depends on Individual Differences in Working Memory and Math Anxiety” (Emotion).


Succeeding in school: Stress boosts performance for confident students, but holds back those with more anxiety. Science Daily. Retrieved August 9, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *