Erin O'Donnell in Harvard Magazine:
When forced to perform in a high-pressure situation—addressing a room of skeptical colleagues, meeting with a demanding boss, or singing for a crowd—keep calm! That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. Yet new research by social scientist Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, suggests that people in fact perform best not when they try to relax, but when they take simple steps to get excited about the challenge at hand.
In previous work, Brooks studied how even run-of-the-mill anxiety (Did I remember to turn off the stove? Will I meet my deadline?) can harm decision-making. Her research revealed that anxiety is a drain on cognitive resources, using up brain power and information-processing ability and reducing confidence. “Feeling anxious is very unpleasant,” she says, so people go to great lengths to avoid it. If they are involved in negotiations, for example, “they exit early, they make large concessions, they respond very quickly to counteroffers, and ultimately they perform poorly.” Yet anxiety doesn’t always harm performance. The Yerkes-Dodson Law, formulated in the early twentieth century, maintains that “a moderate amount of anxiety can actually be motivating and energizing,” Brooks explains: it may prompt thorough preparation for a high-stakes presentation. If arousal and anxiety build, though, performance begins to decline.