Quirks & Quarks

Monkeys respond to high pressure situations by choking, just like humans do

When jackpot-sized rewards were on the line, the monkeys became too cautious and their performance in a learned task declined

Researchers think the monkeys choked because they became overly-cautious in their task

Harris English reacts after missing a birdie putt which would have put him in the playoff during the final round of the 2021 WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational golf tournament in Memphis, Tennessee. (Christopher Hanewinckel / USA TODAY Sports)

It can happen to anybody: we do something under pressure that we've done easily a million times. But for some reason, when stakes are really high — maybe a lot of people are watching — we can't do it. We choke.

According to a recent study, we're not the only animal species who buckle under pressure. 

Steven Chase, a professor in Carnegie Mellon's Department of Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience Institute,  trained Rhesus monkeys to do a challenging sensory-motor task that involved manipulating a cursor on a display screen for a reward. Before each trial the monkeys would get a cue to indicate the size of their reward if they successfully completed the task.

A Rhesus monkey, carrying a piece of debris in its mouth, crosses a chasm the hard way as a Chinese audience looks on at the Beijing zoo in this file photo. Scientists in the U.S. who were studying this species of monkey found they, like humans, also choke under pressure. (Paul Barker / Reuters)

As the researchers increased the reward — from small to medium, to large — the monkeys got better at the task. But when they offered a jackpot-sized reward, the monkeys' performance took a nosedive by around 10 to 25 per cent.

Just like in humans, when the monkeys saw the jackpot cue, their performance got worse. 

Washington Huskies players watch from the sidelines as place kicker Peyton Henry prepared to kick a field goal at the end of the second half against the Oregon Ducks. Henry missed the field goal that put the game into overtime. Oct 13, 2018 (Troy Wayrynen / USA TODAY Sports)

Chase said the reason they did worse when a jackpot-sized reward was on the line was the opposite of what he was expecting. He thought the monkeys would get overly excited by the jackpot reward and jump the gun. Instead, they saw the opposite behaviour in the monkeys: they were overly cautious. 

This suggests that choking under pressure is a trait that's stuck through evolution and is inherent in the neural circuitry we share with monkeys. 


Produced and written by Sonya Buyting. To hear the interview with Prof. Steven Chase, click the link at the top of the page.

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