Monday, January 16, 2012

Book review: Choke

This post reviews Sian Beilock's recent book:  
"Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To"  from an O.R. perspective, as well as from the p.o.v of Dharmic philosophy that has some deep connections to some of the mind-training techniques mentioned in the book.

Scholastic/Intellectual test situations
In addition to aspiring sport stars and business leaders who certainly want to avoid 'choking' at any cost, this book can be particularly useful to students who plan to take competitive scholastic tests. Beilock characterizes 'choking' as suboptimal performance, which implies the existence of a clearly superior level that becomes feasible via practical mind-training techniques. When it comes to tests like SAT and GRE, 'worry' can negatively affect the parts of the brain that are most involved ("working memory" in the prefrontal cortex) in the Q&A process and this can directly result in choking due to a suboptimal allocation of brain power. In fact when constrained by 'worry', lab experiments show that smarter students who routinely ace practice tests are likely to drop to a more seriously suboptimal level relative to 'average' students who face a similar worry. In particular, the book presents evidence that shows that the effect of negative gender stereotyping (e.g. "girls can't do math") has been devastating in the US, inducing a lot of female exam takers to 'choke' in such situations. Subsequently, many of these candidates reconsider their original choice of a STEM career. The author presents a systematic rebuttal of Larry Summers' controversial gender-related remarks in Harvard a few years ago that looks compelling.

An important technique that is proven to minimize the chances of choking during intense time-constrained testing situations is the ancient Indian method of Yoga and meditation that is freely available to anybody (Vipasana in particular, is recommended by the author. Even three months of adopting such methods are known to have beneficial effects). Now if one were to, over an extended period of time, move along this positive Yogic meditation gradient to maximize its benefits, one can practically experience higher states of consciousness and self-realization. This is a central truth-claim of the Dharmic thought system (DTS) of India. The 2011 book 'Being Different' by Rajiv Malhotra is a scholarly and well-researched book that expounds on DTS and is particularly useful for western minds that seek to understand what Yoga and Sanskrit (the language of Yoga) truly mean.

Finely honed motor-skills and fluid movements are critical to achieving optimal performance. Here, one can think of the task of winning a contest as constantly solving two nested decision optimization problems. The meta-problem is to manage tactics and overall strategy, while the inner problem is how best to 'operationalize' the chosen objectives in real-time. A conclusion in this book is that one must certainly think about the meta ("what") problem using working memory. On the other hand, it is better not to (like Yogi Berra said) intellectually analyze the "how" part where a player makes real-time play decisions and executes a sequence of precise movements since these have been optimized (objectified?) over years of careful practice and then 'outsourced' to the brain's 'procedural memory'. It's like trying to analyze your legs as you descend a staircase in a hurry.

When it comes to crunch free-throws in basketball, it appears that an important 'choke' statistic is the conditional probability that a player will make the shot given that his/her team is one point behind. Apparently, this conditional probability differs by about 7% on average from its unconditional counterpart. As far as crunch-time soccer penalty kicks, well-established European league stars are more likely to choke and have a success rate of 65%, which is much less than future stars, whose conversion rate was above 90%. In baseball, home teams that are a game away from winning a series, win that game only about 38% of the time. Clearly, heightened expectations from supporters increases the chances of choking.


A useful point to remember that will help minimize the chances of suboptimal performance in any situation is present in a Sanksrit Mantra that was uttered after what can be viewed as the world's first ever choke, when Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharatha, on the eve of battle, is consumed by self-doubt and initially decides against fighting the good fight and plans on simply walking away, before Krishna who was selected by Arjuna to be his charioteer in this battle, reminds him of his Dharma (a Sanskrit untranslatable, roughly means 'fundamental duty') and says, among other things:  


Karmanyeva adhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana
Ma karmaphalahetur bhurma te sangostvakarmani.

"Your attention must be directed toward the action alone, never with its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, neither should you be inclined toward inaction".

As we can see, even heroes can choke, but the truly great ones have a reliable 'corner man' like support system that helps them find a way to turn it around.


[update: fixed format]

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