How does working memory influence performance under pressure?

2012 London Olympic Games Korea JIN Jongoh won the gold medal Men's 10 meter air pistol final in the Olympic Games Shooting competition at the Royal Artillery Barracks. 2012.7.29. Photo by Korean Olympic Committee Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service -------------------------------------- 2012 런던 올림픽 진종오 남자 10m 공기 권총 금메달 획득 사진제공 - 대한체육회 문화체육관광부 해외문화홍보원

Successfully executing skills under pressure is often attributed to the ability to ignore distractions, such as taunts from the crowd or an opponent. This ability resembles the primary function of working memory capacity; that being, to control attention in the face of interference. Thus, an individual’s working memory capacity likely influences their ability to perform under pressure.

Greg Wood and colleagues designed an experiment to test this theory.

Experimental Design

117 undergraduate students completed the Operation Span Task, which is a common assessment of working memory capacity. The 12 students with the highest scores were allocated into the high working memory capacity group and the 12 students with the lowest scores formed the low working memory capacity group.

The 2 groups performed a task that involved shooting targets on a projector screen. The task


Explanation of the shooting task. Extracted from Wood et al. (2015)

Participants wore eye tracking glasses whilst performing the task so that visual gaze could be recorded. The authors hypothesised that performing poorly under pressure would be accompanied by reduced quiet eye duration. This was based on previous research that showed this effect.

The results

  • Participants in the low working memory capacity group, compared to the high working memory capacity group, displayed significantly poorer performance when pressure was heightened .
  • However, poor performance under pressure was not associated with reduced quiet eye duration.
Wood et al performance

Extracted from Wood et al. (2016). NOTE: Only Figure C is shown from this figure.



Wood, G., Vine, S. J., & Wilson, M. R. (2016). Working memory capacity, controlled attention and aiming performance under pressure. Psychological research, 80(4), 510-517.

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