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We all do not respond in the same way to pressure. There are those who get the best out of themselves when they are pressured and those who feel overwhelmed, to the point that they can become paralyzed. Researchers from Iowa State University found that smarter people are more likely to drown in situations of pressure.
People who have an elevated Intellectual Quotient often feel overwhelmed in complex and changing environments. Why? Their mental capacity makes them more vulnerable to performance anxiety and ruminative thoughts. In other words: being able to foresee everything that can go wrong and demanding too much plays against them, generating more concern, which ends up undermining their performance.
Your performance will depend on the goals you set
These psychologists asked 261 business students to participate in an experiment related to the stock market. They divided them into three groups, to which they gave different goals: performance, learning or doing their best.
As the students were understanding the task, the researchers began to manipulate the conditions to make the exercise more complex and see how the participants responded to changes.
Thus they discovered that students with a higher IQ showed a performance quite similar to those with a lower IQ when the goal was to measure performance. However, when they had only been asked to “do their best”, the smartest students outnumbered the rest.
A hyperreactive brain
A previous study conducted at Seattle Pacific University revealed that people with an higher IQ were more likely to develop from anxiety to ruminative thoughts. These psychologists proposed the “Theory of Intellectual Overexcitability”, based on the concept of “psychological and physiological overexcitability” introduced by the psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski in the 1960s.
In practice, being just 2% smarter than the average is associated with a state of overexcitability, an unusually intense reaction to an environmental threat, which can be anything from a noise that takes us by surprise to a confrontation with another person or the pressure for performance.
This state of overexcitability is also related to a marked tendency to ruminate and worry, which is due to a highly connected brain. The usual thing is that our brain stays active when we do something but when the mind is distracted, a lot of those circuits are “turned off”, until we concentrate on another task.
The brain of the smartest people does not work that way. It is more excitable and it is difficult to be “turned off”, which makes that these people can not relax completely and often respond intensely to situations. This can also lead them to feel overwhelmed, which would be the expression of their seeing, feeling and thinking “too much”.
If the person is not able to get out of that vicious circle, he will be more stressed and likely to develop mental disorders. In fact, many geniuses of the past, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, were plagued with overexcitability that led them to suffer from affective and generalized mood disorders. The prodigious creativity of Isaac Newton, for example, was the product of his intense and prolonged rumination. He meditated a lot on his past mistakes and became overly worried, which eventually led him to suffer a nervous breakdown in 1693.
Learn how to reduce pressure
This experiment suggests that our performance in certain tasks depends not only on our intellectual abilities, but also on the objectives that we set ourselves. If we feel that we are under pressure and that we are being evaluating, our results will be worse than if we simply decided to make the best effort and give the best of ourselves.
Intelligence, understood only as those cognitive skills that allow solving problems, will not allow you to get very far in an environment so uncertain and changing as the current one. We also need a dose of Emotional Intelligence.
That means that, under pressure, we must learn to manage emotions and change focus. Instead of focusing solely on results, we must focus on the process. Instead of focusing on the final goal, we must set ourselves small goals that allow us to reach the final one and, instead of assuming the problem with a fixed mentality, we must face it with a growth mentality that allows us to learn.
This way we can assume a psychological distance that allows us to stay calm and improve our performance, without feeling that pressure that ends up overwhelming us.
Howe, M. (2019) General mental ability and goal type as antecedents of recurrent adaptive task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology.
Karpinski, R. I. et. Al. (2018) High intelligence: A risk factor for psychological and physiological overexcitabilities. Intelligence; 66: 8-23.