Problem: Anxiety, as documented by Scott Stossel’s recent cover story in The Atlantic, and the online discussion that followed, is a multi-faceted, variable problem that affects many, many people. And everyone has different strategies for coping. A recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology looked at one particular brand of anxiety—performance anxiety. Because life is cruel, previous research has shown that anxiety can hurt performance, knowledge that certainly isn’t going to make anyone less anxious.
When faced with clammy palms or trouble breathing before a big meeting or public speaking event, the default advice is to try to calm down. But Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School looked into the effectiveness of doing just the opposite—getting excited.
Methodology: Brooks conducted a series of experiments designed to see test the possibility of “reappraising” anxiety as excitement. First, she asked participants in an online survey what the best advice for someone anxious about a presentation would be, to establish the general wisdom on coping with performance anxiety.
Next, a different group of 113 participants were asked to sing on a karaoke video game, an anxiety-inducing task to be sure. Before singing, participants were assigned to tell themselves “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing. Then the video game measured how well they performed. Other experiments checked variables like familiarity with the song and confidence in one’s own singing.