Out of control: Diminished prefrontal activity coincides with impaired motor performance due to choking under pressure

There are three non-exclusive theoretical explanations for the paradoxical collapse of performance due to large financial incentives. It has been proposed that “choking under pressure” is either due to distraction, interference via an increase in top-down control and performance monitoring, or excessive levels of arousal in the face of large losses. Given the known neural architecture involved in executive control and reward, we used fMRI of human participants during incentivized motor performance to provide evidence to support and/or reconcile these competing models in a visuomotor task. We show that the execution of a pre-trained motor task during neuroimaging is impaired by high rewards. BOLD activity occurring prior to movement onset is increased in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and functional connectivity between this region and mortar cortex is likewise increased just prior to choking. However, the extent of this increase in functional connectivity is inversely related to a participant's propensity to choke, suggesting that a failure in exerting top-down influence on motor control underlies choking under pressure due to large incentives. These results are consistent with a distraction account of choking and suggest that frontal influences on motor activity are necessary to protect performance from vulnerability under pressure.

T. G. Lee and S. T. Grafton
Volume: 105
Pages: 145-155
Date: January, 2015
ICB Affiliated Authors: Scott T Grafton