What predicts performance differences in two people with equal aptitude and prep?

What predicts performance differences in two people with equal preparation? Challenge!


Tests, performance and stress.

We all face tests in our lifetime. As I write, all across the country people are preparing for, or sitting exams. My own students are no exception – I have 180 undergraduates who are busy revising (I hope) for a exam on social psychology next week. There are a lot of things which predict success in such tasks. Some are out of our immediate control – some people simply have an aptitude for exams and some (like me!) find them more difficult. Other things are more within our control – how much you engaged with the course when it was presented, how much extra reading you did and how thorough your revision was. But what predicts the differences between two people of equal aptitude, who have prepared similarly? The ‘edge’ the stronger person have may be less to do with how much they know or how skilled they are, and more to do with how they perceive the situation. I understand this via something called the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat [BPSM][1]

Challenge and Threat

The biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat [BPSM] suggests differences in performance outcomes are in part due to the motivational state we are in when we undertake the task. It argues that we can experience states of challenge or threat. Challenge is linked to improved performance, a tendency to be proactive and more positive emotions. In contrast, threat is associated with worse performance, negative affect and more conservative approaches to reaching a goal. Translated into exams – challenge = better answers than threat.

Interestingly, these states have differing physiological effects also. When we are engaged in a task and in a state of challenge, we experience activation in the sympathetic adrenal medullary system, leading to a rise in adrenaline. Adrenaline is great stuff in short bursts. It basically puts our system in overdrive. When we feel threatened, we get this same boost, but we also experience increased activation of the hypothalamus – pituitary axis, which results in increased production of the stress hormone cortisol. We all produce this throughout today, but long term overproduction of cortisol has been linked to negative outcomes such as diabetes and heart disease. Research shows states of challenge can lead to, amongst other outcomes, better maths performance, better ‘boggle’(a word search game) scores, better interpersonal interactions, higher baseball batting averages and better golf swings![2,3,4]
So, challenge is good. But what dictates if we experience it or not? The BPSM is an appraisal model. That means out responses are driven by how we perceive a situation, rather than how it actually is. If we see our own internal resources (for instance, our knowledge, abilities or the social support of others) as outweighing our perceptions of the demands of the situation (I.e. uncertainty, risk, of difficulty) we feel challenged. If the reverse is true, threat. Note – perceptions are key here – it is how we appraise the world which influences our motivational state.

Increasing challenge

So, what can we do to increase challenge? The most obvious is preparation – reducing uncertainty or increasing knowledge will encourage challenge. However, just before an event like an exam, those things sometimes seem quite distant. But there are some things you can do (and some things to avoid!). For example:

1) Try and focus on the task and how you will handle it, and avoid dwelling about what will happen if you don’t do well (it’ll probably won’t be as bad as you think, and generating ‘danger’ thoughts will also encourage threat). Thinking about what will happen if you do well can be helpful, as some work suggests goal importance can increase challenge [5]p

2) Trying to remember everything you know will only highlight gaps in your knowledge – the one thing you can’t recall will generate uncertainty and thus threat. If you catch yourself doing this – stop!

3) Much better is to mentally focus on what you know well, the work you’ve done, remember other tests you’ve done well on, and generally focus on the resources at your disposal. The more resources you can think about the better!

4) People who are generally supportive and highlight your strengths are better to hang out with before an exam than those who try and demonstrate they know more than everyone else -social support has been shown to invoke challenge states significantly.

It’s important to note no amount of appraisal strategy will let you do well in an performance situation if you haven’t put the hours in beforehand. However, effective appraisals can push you over the line to a better performance, and sometimes, the difference between ok and great can be very fine indeed! In anycase, good luck to all of you currently sitting exams, facing tests or generally needing excellent performance. And if any of my students are reading this (go POBOers!) I wish you all the best in particular!

It's not just the situation that counts, but how you evaluate your resources in the face of it. Share on X

[1] Blascovich, J., & Tomaka, J. (1996). The biopsychosocial model of arousal regulation. Advances in experimental social psychology, 28, 1-52.
[2] Seery, M. D. (2011). Challenge or threat? Cardiovascular indexes of resilience and vulnerability to potential stress in humans. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(7), 1603-1610.
[3] Moore, L. J., Vine, S. J., Wilson, M. R., & Freeman, P. (2012). The effect of challenge and threat states on performance: An examination of potential mechanisms. Psychophysiology, 49(10), 1417-1425.
[4] Blascovich, J., Seery, M. D., Mugridge, C. A., Norris, R. K., & Weisbuch, M. (2004). Predicting athletic performance from cardiovascular indexes of challenge and threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 683-688.
[5] Frings, D., Eskisan, G., Spada, M. M., & Albery, I. P. (2015). Levels of craving influence psychological challenge and physiological reactivity.Appetite, 84, 161-165.


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7 thoughts on “What predicts performance differences in two people with equal aptitude and prep?”

  1. Hey Dan,

    Thank you for your encouraging words. This was a really good read. Nice to be reminded (or explained) of the effects of perceived threat vs challenge in relation to our exam performance.
    I know, I will definitely will be challenged (probably by the given time frame) on the exam. 🙂
    Good luck to all!

    ps: I wonder if expectations for another 16 days turnaround for the grades perceived as threat or challenge by the markers? 😀

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