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How to Worry Less About Money | Brain Pickings

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/05/13/how-to-worry-less-about-money/

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“What Goethe can teach us about cultivating a healthy relationship with our finances.

The question of how people spend and earn money has been a cultural obsession since the dawn of economic history, but the psychology behind it is sometimes surprising and often riddled with various anxieties. In How to Worry Less about Money (public library) — another great installment in The School of Life’s heartening series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane, Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex, and Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work — Melbourne Business School philosopher-in-residenceJohn Armstrong guides us to arriving at our own “big views about money and its role in life,” transcending the narrow and often oppressive conceptions of our monoculture.

He begins with a crucial distinction, the heart of which echoes James Gordon Gilkey’s 1934 advice on how not to worry. Armstrong writes:

This book is about worries. It’s not about money troubles. There’s a crucial difference.

Troubles are urgent. They ask for direct action. … By contrast, worries often say more about the worrier than about the world.

[…]

So, addressing money worries should be quite different from dealing with money troubles. To address our worries we have to give attention to the pattern of thinking (ideology) and to the scheme of values (culture) as these are played out in our won individual, private existences.

While modern money-advice tends to fall into two main categories — how to get more money and how to get by on less — Armstrong points out that this bespeaks our culture’s fixation on troubles rather than worries. He writes:

This is a problem because the theme of money is so deep and pervasive in our lives. One’s relationship with money is lifelong, it colors one’s sense of identity, it shapes one’s attitude to other people, it connects and splits generations; money is the arena in which greed and generosity are played out, in which wisdom is exercised and folly committed. Freedom, desire, power, status, work, possession: these huge ideas that rule life are enacted, almost always, in and around money.

He draws an analogy from the philosophy of teaching, which distinguishes between training and education:

Training teaches how to carry out a specific task more efficiently and reliably. Education, on the other hand, opens and enriches a person’s mind. To train a person, you need know nothing about who they really are, or what they love, or why. Education reaches out to embrace the whole person. Historically, we have treated money as a matter of training, rather than education in its wider and more dignified sense.

Indianapolis Newsboys buying brass checks in a newspaper office, 1908

The U.S. National Archives, public domain

 

Underpinning our money worries, Armstrong argues, are four main questions that have far less to do with our financial standing than with psychoemotional and social factors — questions about why money is important to us, how much money we need to achieve what’s important to us, what the best way to acquire that money is, and what our economic responsibilities to others are in the course of acquiring and using that money. We’ll never overcome our money worries, he argues, unless we first recognize those underlying questions:

Our worries — when it comes to money — are about psychology as much as economics, the soul as much as the bank balance.

Key among Armstrong’s strategies for alleviating such worries is developing a good relationship with money, which parallels human-to-human dynamics:

One thing that’s characteristic of a good relationship is this: you get more accurate at assigning responsibility. When things go wrong you can see how much is your fault and how much is the fault of the other person. And the same holds when things go well. You know that part of it is your doing and part depends on the contribution of your partner.

This model applies to money. When things go well or badly, it’s partly about what you bring to the situation and partly about what money brings. What money brings is a certain level of spending power.

What you bring to this relationship includes imagination, values, emotions, attitudes, ambitious, fears, and memories. So the relationship is absolutely not just a matter of pure economic facts of how much you get and how much you spend.

In discussing research indicating that more money, after a certain threshold, doesn’t mean more happiness, Armstrong offers a necessary definition of happiness:

When we talk about happiness, what do we have in mind? Probably a mixture of buoyancy and serenity; you feel elated but safe.

The relationship money has to these attributes, he argues, is “real but diminishing.” While money can buy the accoutrements of buoyancy — chocolate, weekend getaways, expensive shoes — many people feel unhappy despite having these. His explanation, echoing the philosophy of Alan Watts, leads to the obvious conclusion:

Money can purchase the symbols but not the causes of serenity and buoyancy. In a straightforward way we must agree that money cannot buy happiness.

Market scene, 1922

The Field Museum Library, public domain

 

Since Armstrong’s main argument is premised on the idea that our culture is geared toward addressing troubles rather than amplifying well-being, which parallels the disconnect that Martin Seligman observed in the field of psychology when he founded the positive psychology movement, it comes as no surprise that Armstrong’s key construct in solving the conundrum mirrors Seligman’s philosophy of flourishing over “happiness.” Indeed, Armstrong argues that while serenity and buoyancy are appealing, they fall short of reflecting what people really want out of life:

Most people realize that they really need to do things for other people. There is a deep fear that one’s life will be lived in vain — without making a contribution, or a benign difference, to the lives of others.

[…]

Flourishing means getting on with the things that are important for you to do, exercising your capacities, actively trying to “realize” what you care about and bring it into life. But these activities involve anxiety, fear of failure and setbacks, as well as a sense of satisfaction, occasional triumphs and moments of excitement.

And yet this is in no way a motion to flatten the full dimensionality of the human experience:

A good life is still a life. It must involve a full share of suffering, loneliness, disappointment and coming to terms with one’s own mortality and the deaths of those one loves. To live a life that is good as a life involves all this.

While the things money can secure — like power, influence, and access to resources — may not be shortcuts to serenity and buoyancy, Armstrong argues, they are inextricably linked to flourishing by enabling you to pursue the things that are important to you and, in the process, to contribute to the lives of others. Here, the relationship between amount of money and potential for flourishing doesn’t flatline the way it does in a more narrow conception of happiness:

Armstrong’s key point, however, is that while this correlation of growth might be directly proportional, money isn’t a cause of flourishing but an ingredient in it, a mere resource with which to build the life we want, catalyzed by virtue:

Money brings about good consequences — helps us live valuable lives — only when joined with “virtues.” Virtues are good abilities of mind and character.

Reminiscent of Ben-Franklian virtues like temperance, frugality, and moderation is another essential skill in alleviating our money worries — the ability to distinguish between wants and needs. The need-desire distinction, Armstrong suggests, is useful in warding off mere desires, like the longing for the latest shiny gadget, even if it’s of little utilitarian value, or that sleek new bike, even if the old one works perfectly fine.

If we want to be wise about money we should resist the impulse to follow our desires and concentrate instead on getting what we need.

Need is deeper — bound up with the serious narrative of one’s life. “Do I need this”? is a way of asking: how important is this thing, how central is it to my becoming a good version of myself; what is it actually for in my life? This interrogation is designed to distinguish needs from mere wants. And that’s a good distinction to make.

But it is important to see that this is not the same as the “modest versus grand” distinction. Our needs are not always for the smaller, lesser, cheaper thing.

The ultimate purpose of purchases, he argues, is to help us flourish. His strategy for mastering the needs/wants balance thus rests on not conflating this dichotomy with familiar ones like basic/refined (“a distinction about the level of complexity of an object”) or cheap/luxurious (“a distinction to do with price and demand”). Instead, he recommends a seemingly counter-intuitive approach — to consider our needs first, without taking price into account.

But, ultimately, Armstrong points out that the things most essential to our flourishing — despite what our monoculture might dictate — are often unrelated to material goods:

The crucial developmental step in the economic lives of individuals and societies is their ability to cross from the pursuit of middle-order goods to higher-order goods. Sometimes we need to lessen our attachment to the middle needs like status and glamor in order to concentrate on higher things. This doesn’t take more money; it takes more independence of mind.

Still, the material and the spiritual are inextricably linked:

There are quite profound reasons why we should care simultaneously about having and doing. Both are connected to flourishing.

What we do with our lives is obviously central to who we are. What we expend our mental energy on, what we put our emotional resources into, where we deploy courage or daring or prudence or commitment: these are major parts of existence and are inevitably much connected with work and earning money. And we need these parts of existence in order to find proper application in activities that deserve our best efforts. We don’t’ want to reserve our central capacities for the margins and weekends of life.

Despite certain cultural stereotypes, Armstrong points out that, precisely because of these parallel forces, doing well and doing good don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there could in fact exist a straight positive correlation between intrinsic worth and extrinsic, material reward:

At an individual level, one is trying to find a way of making this happen in one’s own life. But because intrinsic worth isn not just what is good for me, but what is actually good, this is a public service as well. It’s not greedy to want to make quite a lot of money — if you want to make it as a reward for doing things that are genuinely good for other people.

In considering yet another essential difference — that between price and value — Armstrong makes a key distinction, which most of us intuit but can rarely articulate with such eloquence:

Price is a public matter — a negotiation between supply and demand. A thing’s price is set in competition. So the price of a car is determined by how much some people want it, how much they are willing to pay, and how ready the manufacturer is to sell. It’s a public activity: lots of people are involved in the process, but your voice is almost never important in setting the price.

Value, on the other hand, is a personal, ethical and aesthetic judgment — assigned finally by individuals, and founded on their perceptiveness, wisdom and character.

Armstrong finds a certain artfulness to the issue of managing our money-worries:

Ultimately, one is cultivating an art — one of the minor political arts, the art of domestic finance. By saying that it is an art, one is getting at the idea that there are multiple motives and rewards, which are integrated. There is anaesthetic or order — a physical beauty that is connected to neatness and clarity — like the beauty of the periodic table, or the elegance of a mathematical equation, or the rightness of a note in a sonata. It is a classical beauty.

In a chapter considering the problems of the rich, who are able to use money to fulfill their desires, Armstrong writes, with a wince and a wink at the “hedonic treadmill”:

Money does not liberate people in the way that we assume it must.

[…]

There is a very imperfect relationship between desire and flourishing. Desire aims at pleasure. Whereas the achievement of a good life depends upon the good we create. And the opportunity to follow whatever desire one might happen to have is the enemy of the effort, concentration, devotion, patience and self-sacrifice that are necessary if we are to achieve worthwhile ends.

Armstrong goes on to outline a number of practical strategies for improving our relationship with money and thus mastering our worries, concluding with a wonderful anecdote of a man who epitomized that relationship at its healthiest:Goethe.

‘The civilized ideal: elegance and devotion to work.’

Jonathan Joseph Schmeller, Goethe in His Study Dictating to His Secretary John, 1831

 

From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction. He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study has no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life.

Complement How to Worry Less about Money with The School of Life’s How to Find Fulfilling Work and How to Stay Sane.

Quoted text excerpted from How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life.”

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How Not To Worry: A 1934 Guide to Mastering Life | Brain Pickings

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““We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them.”

As far as vintage finds go, they hardly get more fortuitous than You Can Master Life (public library) — a marvelous 1934 compendium of sort-of-philosophical, sort-of-self-helpy, at times charmingly dated, other times refreshingly timeless advice on cultivating “the power to think, to create, to influence and be influenced by others, and to love,” in the spirit of the 1949 gem How To Avoid Work.

Though written by a Christian pastor namedJames Gordon Gilkey and thus a little too God-heavy for these corners of the internet, the slim volume shares a good amount in common with Alain de Botton’s modern-day advocacy of the secular sermon. Take, for instance, Gilkey’s advice in a chapter titled “Breaking the Grip of Worry.” He cites a “Worry Table” created by one of the era’s humorists — most likely Mark Twain, who is often quoted, though never with a specific source, as having said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” The table was designed to distinguish between justified and unjustified worries:

On studying his chronic fears this man found they fell into five fairly distinct classifications:

  1. Worries about disasters which, as later events proved, never happened. About 40% of my anxieties.
  2. Worries about decisions I had made in the past, decisions about which I could now of course do nothing. About 30% of my anxieties.
  3. Worries about possible sickness and a possible nervous breakdown, neither of which materialized. About 12% of my worries.
  4. Worries about my children and my friends, worries arising from the fact I forgot these people have an ordinary amount of common sense. About 10% of my worries.
  5. Worries that have a real foundation. Possibly 8% of the total.

Gilkey then prescribes:

What, of this man, is the first step in the conquest of anxiety? It is to limit his worrying to the few perils in his fifth group. This simple act will eliminate 92% of his fears. Or, to figure the matter differently, it will leave him free from worry 92% of the time.

The concept of the worry table is strikingly reminiscent — and, one has to wonder, might have inspired — artist Andrew Kuo’s elaborate 2008 graphic My Wheel of Worry:

(Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald intuited the basic premise of the table when he sent his daughter Scottie an itemized list of the things in life to worry and not worry about.)

In a later chapter, titled “Doing One’s Work Under Difficulties,” Gilkey offers some related advice which, on the one hand, bears that wise Buddhist-like mindset of living with sheer awareness but, on the other, makes a questionable case against introspection and the enormous enrichment of “living the questions”:

We should make ourselves stop trying to explain our own difficulties. Our first impulse is to try to account for them, figure out why what has happened did happen. Sometimes such an effort is beneficial: more often it is distinctly harmful. It leads to introspection, self-pity, and vain regret; and almost invariably it creates within us a dangerous mood of confusion and despair. Many of life’s hard situations cannotbe explained. They can only be endured, mastered, and gradually forgotten. Once we learn this truth, once we resolve to use all our energies managing life rather than trying to explain life, we take the first and most obvious step toward significant accomplishment.

In the following chapter, “Learning to Adjust,” Gilkey revisits the subject through the lens of aging:

Only as we yield to the inexorable, only as we accept the situations which we find ourselves powerless to change, can we free ourselves from fatal inward tensions, and acquire that inward quietness amid which we can seek — and usually find — ways by which our limitations can be made at least partially endurable.

[…]

Why is [this] so difficult for most people? because most of us were told in childhood that the way to conquer a difficulty is to fight it and demolish it. That theory is, of course, the one that should be taught to young people. Many of the difficulties we encounter in youth are not permanent; and the combination of a heroic courage, a resolute will, and a tireless persistence will often — probably usually — break them down. Bu tin later years the essential elements in the situation change. We find in our little world prison-walls which no amount of battering will demolish. Within those walls we must spend our day — spend them happily, or resentfully. Under these new circumstances we must deliberately reverse our youthful technique. We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them. Only when this surrender is made can we assure ourselves of inward quietness, and locate the net step on the road to ultimate victory.

Complement You Can Master Life with a contemporary counterpart of sorts, the wonderful and wonderfully useful How To Stay Sane, then wash down with a verse-by-verse neuropsychology reading of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

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Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?

February 6, 2013

By PO BRONSON and ASHLEY MERRYMAN

“Noah Muthler took his first state standardized test in third grade at the Spring Cove Elementary School in Roaring Spring, Pa. It was a miserable experience, said his mother, Kathleen Muthler. He was a good student in a program for gifted children. But, Muthler said, “he was crying in my arms the night before the test, saying: ‘I’m not ready, Mom. They didn’t teach us everything that will be on the test.’ ” In fourth grade, he was upset the whole week before the exam. “He manifests it physically,” his mother said. “He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school.” Not a good sleeper anyway, Noah would slip downstairs after an hour tossing in bed and ask his mom to lie down with him until he fell asleep. In fifth grade, the anxiety lasted a solid month before the test. “Even after the test, he couldn’t let it go. He would wonder about questions he feared he misunderstood,” Muthler said.

So this year, Muthler is opting Noah out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, using a broad religious and ethical exemption. Just knowing he won’t be taking the tests in March has put Noah in a better frame of mind about school. “The pressure is off his shoulders now,” his mother said. When he doesn’t grasp a concept immediately, he can talk it through without any panic. “He looks forward to science class and math class again,” Muthler said. “He wants to be a chemical or nuclear engineer.”

Muthler understands Noah’s distress; more mysterious is why her son Jacob, who is in eighth grade, isn’t the least bit unnerved by the same tests. He, too, is in the gifted program, but that seems to give him breezy confidence, not fear. “You would think he doesn’t even care,” Muthler marveled. “Noah has the panic and anxiety for both of them.” Nevertheless, she will opt out Jacob from the tests, too, to be consistent.

Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future. As more school districts strive for accountability, standardized tests have proliferated. The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial. Students get the message that class work isn’t what counts, and that the standardized exam is the truer measure. Sure, you did your homework and wrote a great history report — but this test is going to find out how smart you really are. Critics argue that all this test-taking is churning out sleep-deprived, overworked, miserable children.

But some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances. Why can Jacob thrive under pressure, while it undoes Noah? And how should that difference inform the way we think about high-stakes testing? An emerging field of research — and a pioneering study from Taiwan — has begun to offer some clues. Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

Every May in Taiwan, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. This is not just any test. The scores will determine which high school the students are admitted to — or if they get into one at all. Only 39 percent of Taiwanese children make the cut, with the rest diverted to vocational schools or backup private schools. The test, in essence, determines the future for Taiwanese children.

The test is incredibly difficult; answering the multiple-choice questions requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry, and testing lasts for two days. “Many students go to cram school almost every night to study all the subjects on the test,” says Chun-Yen Chang, director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University. “Just one or two percentage points difference will drag you from the No. 1 high school in the local region down to No. 3 or 4.”

In other words, the exam was a perfect, real world experiment for studying the effects of genetics on high-stakes competition. Chang and his research team took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the Basic Competency Test in three regions of Taiwan. They matched each student’s genotype to his or her test score.

The researchers were interested in a single gene, the COMT gene. This gene carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts. “Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.

Here’s the thing: There are two variants of the gene. One variant builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine. The other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. We all carry the genes for one or the other, or a combination of the two.

In lab experiments, people have been given a variety of cognitive tasks — computerized puzzles and games, portions of I.Q. tests — and researchers have consistently found that, under normal conditions, those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. They have superior executive function and all it entails: they can reason, solve problems, orchestrate complex thought and better foresee consequences. They can concentrate better. This advantage appears to increase with the number of years of education.

The brains of the people with the other variant, meanwhile, are comparatively lackadaisical. The fast-acting enzymes remove too much dopamine, so the overall level is too low. The prefrontal cortex simply doesn’t work as well.

On that score alone, having slow-acting enzymes sounds better. There seems to be a trade-off, however, to these slow enzymes, one triggered by stress. In the absence of stress, there is a cognitive advantage. But when under stress, the advantage goes away and in fact reverses itself.

“Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A little booster hit of dopamine is normally a good thing, but the big surge brought on by stress is too much for people with the slow-acting enzyme, which can’t remove the dopamine fast enough. “Much like flooding a car engine with too much gasoline, prefrontal-cortex function melts down,” Diamond says.

Other research has found that those with the slow-acting enzymes have higher I.Q.’ s, on average. One study of Beijing schoolchildren calculated the advantage to be 10 I.Q. points. But it was unclear if the cognitive advantages they had would stay with them when they were under stress outside the security of the lab environment.

The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?

It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.

“I am not against pressure. Actually, pressure is good [for] someone,” Chang commented. “But those who are more vulnerable to stress will be more disadvantaged.”

As of 2014, Taiwan will no longer require all students to take the Basic Competency Test, as the country moves to 12-year compulsory education. The system will no longer be built to weed out children, but to keep them all in school. But academically advanced students will still take some kind of entrance exam. And those elite students will still feel the pressure, which, it bears repeating, will hurt some but help others.

“The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress,” Diamond says. People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.

Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.

In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.

A number of research studies are looking at COMT, including several involving the American military. Researchers at Brown University have been studying COMT’s connection to post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quinn Kennedy, a research psychologist at the Naval Postgraduate School, is studying how the gene correlates with pilot performance. Douglas C. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, is part of a consortium of researchers called the OptiBrain Center, where he is interested in COMT’s role in combat performance and well-being.

While the studies are ongoing, the early results show those with Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress — as long as they are well trained. Even some Navy SEALs have the Worrier genes, so you can literally be a Worrier-gene Warrior. In Kennedy’s sample, almost a third of the expert pilots were Worriers — a larger proportion than in the general population.

Kennedy’s work is particularly revealing. She puts pilots through a series of six flight-simulator tests, where pilots endure turbulence, oil-pressure problems, iced carburetors and crosswinds while landing. They are kept furiously busy, dialing to new frequencies, flying to new altitudes and headings and punching in transponder codes.

Among recreational pilots with the lowest rating level — trained to fly only in daylight — those with Warrior genes performed best. But that changed with more experience. Among recreational pilots who had the next level of qualification — trained to fly at night using cockpit instruments — the Worriers far outperformed the Warriors. Their genetically blessed working memory and attention advantage kicked in. And their experience meant they didn’t melt under the pressure of their genetic curse.

What this suggests, Kennedy says, is that, for Worriers, “through training, they can learn to manage the particular stress in the specific pilot training, even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives.”

So while the single-shot stakes of a standardized exam is particularly ill suited for Worrier genotypes, this doesn’t mean that they should be shielded from all challenge. In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Johnson explains this as a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” he continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

There are many psychological and physiological reasons that long-term stress is harmful, but the science of elite performance has drawn a different conclusion about short-term stress. Studies that compare professionals with amateur competitors — whether concert pianists, male rugby or female volleyball players — show that professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus.

A similar mental shift can also help students in test-taking situations. Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, has done a series of experiments that reveal how the labeling of stress affects performance on academic testing.

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.

At first blush, you might assume that the statement about anxiety being beneficial simply calmed the students, reducing their stress and allowing them to focus. But that was not the case. Jamieson’s team took saliva samples of the students, both the day before the practice test to set a base line, and right after reading the lines about the new science — just moments before they started the first question. Jamieson had the saliva tested for biomarkers that show the level of activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system — our “fight or flight” response. The experimental group’s stress levels were decidedly higher. The biological stress was real, but it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.

If you went to an SAT testing site and could run physiological and neurological scans on the teenagers milling outside the door right before the exam, you would observe very different biomarkers from student to student. Those standing with shoulders hunched, or perhaps rubbing their hands, stamping their feet to get warm, might be approaching what Wendy Berry Mendes and colleagues call a “threat state.” According to Mendes, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, the hallmark of a threat state is vasoconstriction — a tightening of the smooth muscles that line every blood vessel in the body. Blood pressure rises; breathing gets shallow. Oxygenated blood levels drop, and energy supplies are reduced. Meanwhile, a rush of hormones amplifies activity in the brain’s amygdala, making you more aware of risks and fearful of mistakes.

At that same test center, you might see students shoulders back, chest open, putting weight on their toes. They may be in a “challenge state.” Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, Jamieson found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.

Jamieson is frustrated that our culture has such a negative view of stress: “When people say, ‘I’m stressed out,’ it means, ‘I’m not doing well.’ It doesn’t mean, ‘I’m excited — I have increased oxygenated blood going to my brain. ”

As the doors to the test center open, the line between challenge and threat is thin. Probably nothing induces a threat state more than feeling you can’t make any mistakes. Threat physiology can be activated with the sense of being judged, or anything that triggers the fear of disappointing others. As a student opens his test booklet, threat can flare when he sees a subject he has recently learned but hasn’t mastered. Or when he sees a problem he has no idea how to solve.

Armando Rodriguez graduated last spring from Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy in Los Angeles, but he is waiting until next fall to start college. He is not taking a gap year to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He’s recuperating from knee surgery for a bone condition, spending his days in physical therapy. And what does he miss about being out of school? Competing.

“It’s an adrenaline rush — like no other thing.” He misses being happy when he wins. He even misses losing. “At least it was a feeling you got,” he said. “It made you want to be better, the next time.” Without a competitive goal, he feels a little adrift. He finds himself mentally competing with other physical-therapy patients.

Rodriguez recorded a 3.86 G.P.A. his senior year of high school and was a defender for the school soccer team. The knee injury happened during a stint on the school’s football team: his doctor had warned that it was too risky to play, but “I just had to try,” he said. He used to constantly challenge his friends on quiz grades; it’s how they made schoolwork fun.

But when he took the SAT last year, he experienced a different sensation. “My heart was racing,” he said. “I had butterflies.” Occasionally, he’d look up from his exam to see everyone else working on their own tests: they seemed to be concentrating so hard and answering questions faster than he was. “What if they’re doing way better than me?” immediately led to the thought, “These people are smarter than me. All the good schools are going to want them, and not me.” Within seconds, he arrived at the worst possible outcome: his hopes of a good college would be gone.

It might seem surprising that the same student can experience competition in such different ways. But this points to what researchers think is the difference between competition that challenges and competition that threatens.

Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, “I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.” Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, “Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.” Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety. When you sign your child up for the swim team, he may really want to finish first, but there are many other reasons to be in the pool, even if he finishes last.

High-stakes academic testing isn’t going away. Nor should competition among students. In fact several scholars have concluded that what students need is more academic competition, but modeled on the kinds children enjoy.

David and Christi Bergin, professors of educational and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri, have begun a pilot study of junior high school students participating in math competitions. They have observed that, within a few weeks, students were tackling more complex problems than they would even at the end of a yearlong class. Some were even doing college-level math. That was true even for students who didn’t like math before joining the team and were forced into it by their parents. Knowing they were going up against other teams in front of an audience, the children took ownership over the material. They became excited about discovering ever more advanced concepts, having realized each new fact was another weapon in their intellectual arsenal.

In-class spelling bees. Science fairs. Chess teams. “The performance is highly motivating,” David Bergin says. Even if a child knows her science project won’t win the science fair, she still gets that moment to perform. That moment can be stressful and invigorating and scary, but if the child handles it well, it feels like a victory.

“Children benefit from competition they have prepared for intensely, especially when viewed as an opportunity to gain recognition for their efforts and improve for the next time,” says Rena Subotnik, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association. Subotnik notes that scholastic competitions can raise the social status of academic work as well as that of the contestants. Competitions like these are certainly not without stress, but the pressure comes in predictable ebbs and flows, broken up by moments of fun and excitement.

Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.

It may be difficult to believe, as Jamieson advises, that stress can benefit your performance. We can read it, and we can talk about it, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be practiced, perhaps for years, before it can become a deeply held conviction.

It turns out that Armando Rodriguez was accepted at five colleges. He rallied that day on the SAT. It wasn’t his best score — he did better the second time around — but it was not as bad as he feared. Rodriguez had never heard of Jeremy Jamieson. He had never read, or ever been told, that intense stress could be harnessed to perform his best. But he understood it and drew strength from it. In the middle of his downward spiral of panic, he realized something: “I’m in a competition. This is a competition. I’ve got to beat them.”

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are the authors of ‘‘Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.’’

Editor: Vera Titunik

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February 9, 2013 · 8:13 pm