Limiting motor skill knowledge via incidental training protects against choking under pressure

Taraz G. Lee, Daniel E. Acuña, Konrad P. Kording, Scott T. Grafton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


The paradoxical harmful effects of motivation and incentives on skilled performance (“choking under pressure”) are observed in a wide variety of motor tasks. Two theories of this phenomenon suggest that choking under pressure occurs due to maladaptive attention and top-down control, either through distraction away from the task or interference via an overreliance on controlled processing of a skilled task. A third theory, overmotivation (or overarousal), suggests that under pressure, “instinctive” or Pavlovian approach/withdrawal responses compete with the desired response. Only the two former theories predict that choking under pressure would be less likely to occur if an individual is unaware of the skill over which to assert top-down control. Here we show that only participants who train and perform with premovement cues that allowed for preparatory movement planning choke under pressure due to large monetary incentives, and that this effect is independent of the level of skill attained. We provide evidence that this might be due to increased movement variability under performance pressure. In contrast, participants trained incidentally to reduce explicit skill knowledge do not modulate performance on the basis of incentives and appear immune to choking. These results are most consistent with distraction theories of choking and suggest that training strategies that limit awareness may lead to skills that are more robust under performance pressure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)279-290
Number of pages12
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 15 2019


  • Attention and executive control
  • Cognitive control and automaticity
  • Implicit vs. explicit memory
  • Skill acquisition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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