Can Fear and Threat Ever Promote Performance?

Modern management theory says that working environments based on fear and threat ultimately hamper performance; that reward and recognition encourages the desired performance.

This has been amply backed up by the neuroscience. The brain operates two separate thinking systems, as defined by the Nobel Prize winning Professor Daniel Kahneman: a rational system that is slow, measured, and voluntary; and a more primitive, emotional system, which is faster, involuntary, and driven by core beliefs.

The theory says that activating the emotional system will lead to fear and threat responses from the brain – more primitive responses that are essentially survival instincts. Leading by reward and recognition promotes engagement, activates the pleasure centres in the brain, and ultimately produces a better response from people.

It’s certainly a healthier and more enjoyable way of working… but are there ever circumstances when fear and threat can lead to better performance?

High-stakes performance

We’ve all witnessed sporting events where the ‘favourite’ fails spectacularly. Maybe it’s missing an easy putt on the eighteenth hole, shanking a penalty into the stands in a vital shoot out, or falling off the high beam in Olympic gymnastics.

Whatever the circumstances, elite professional athletes who have trained all their lives for this defining moment of their career, can and do ‘choke’. It has nothing to do with ability or skill level, it’s just that the pressure gets to them.

University of Chicago psychologist and author Sian Beilock says that choking “is worse performance than you are capable of precisely because there is a lot on the line.”

A recent study by neuroscientists at John Hopkins University looked at potential reasons why this happens. The main focus of the study was whether it is the prospect of huge gains that creates the pressure that affects performance? Or the expectation of huge gains? Does the motivation for succeeding affect performance?

The study compared the performance of people who are loss-averse (who hate losing more than they love winning) with those who are motivated by the rush of winning more than the pain of losing.

26 adults between the ages of 20 and 30 learned a short but difficult video game requiring precise hand control. They were then asked to play the game while having their brains scanned by MRI, and told what the stakes for each round were: losing $100, gaining $100, or anything in between, based on their performance. Participants were also separately tested by questioning to assess their level of loss-aversion.

The study found that participants who cared more about winning ‘choked’ when they stood to lose something significant; conversely those who hated losing the most ‘choked’ when told that they stood to win the most.

Participants with high loss aversion, when faced increasing losses, didn’t ‘choke’ even when the potential loss was at its maximum ($100). These people did fail when offered $100 reward though. For those with low loss aversion, performance improved with increasing prospective gains and increasing prospective losses, but declined when threatened with the maximum loss ($100).

In other words, being too attached to winning can cause ‘choking’ as easily as being too scared of losing.

Limitations and discussion

Of course there are limitations to a study of this nature. Firstly the potential gains and losses cannot be recreated accurately. Comparing performance in playing a game (where the real threat of failure is low) to performing in a final or other major sporting event is not an accurate simulation of the pressures involved. Results should therefore be interpreted with caution.

However, the study is still interesting in that it opens up the idea about ‘framing’ tasks for leadership. If you understand whether people are more motivated by the love of winning or the fear of losing, it can help ‘frame’ tasks to encourage better performance under pressure. There is no ‘one size fits all’; it depends on the person.

The lead study authors said: “We found that the way we framed an incentive — as a potential gain or loss — had a profound effect on participants’ behavior as they performed the skilled task, but the effect was different for those with high versus low aversion to loss.”

If someone always plays to win, they may perform better under pressure when the ‘threat’ element is downplayed; while for loss-averse people, a task may be better framed by what they stand to lose.

The team at NeuroPower is at the forefront of introducing new approaches to organisational development through the findings of neuroscience.

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