Johns Hopkins researcher explores the science of choking under pressure

Vikram Chib studies intersections of robotics, neuroscience, economics

It's been the subject of many a sports debate: Do professional athletes choke under pressure?

Vikram Chib, who recently joined the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, has the answer. Not only can he prove that a choking response exists, he can show you where in the brain it takes place.

Chib, who studies the intersections of robotics, neuroscience, and economics, looks at how incentives and neurological responses affect behavior. Beginning with seminal work by psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, experts have come to understand that people are motivated more by fear of loss than by hope for gain. When an activity carries a high level of risk—playing in a championship game, for example—performance often declines.

Chib recently looked at where this "loss aversion" manifested itself by asking test subjects to perform a task that could earn them large rewards. A deep-brain region called the ventral striatum—the so-called reward center—is the primary area for processing potential benefits. When test subjects were informed what they might win, this area became active, and it remained active when the reward level was relatively low. But as the amount of the reward increased, when more was on the line, activity in the ventral striatum declined, as did performance. In effect, the high stakes muted the brain's reward system circuitry.

The research may lead to new, more effective ways of encouraging preferred behaviors in business and other high-stakes situations. In related work, Chib is pursuing research that could lead to different treatments for depression, schizophrenia, and other mental dysfunctions.

Chib joined the faculty at the School of Engineering and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in March. Before that, he was a postdoctoral scholar in biology and biological engineering at the California Institute of Technology. He earned a bachelor's degree in bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh, and a master's degree and PhD in biomedical engineering at Northwestern University.