Why Do We Always Screw Up When Someone’s Watching?

Raise your hand if you’ve totally forgotten how to type when your boss is watching.

Some nights I have trouble falling asleep because of the embarrassment I still feel after a horrific incident that landed me a shameful black eye. I attended a junior olympic diving competition in Montréal as a teenager. It wasn’t until I got up on the platform that I began to panic. Everyone was watching me.

The onlookers were divers from around the world who were destined to be olympians, world champs, or, I don’t know, future Instagram celebs. As many times as I had drilled the hell out of this dive during practice, somehow, I managed to drop the ball in front of the wrong crowd. Let’s just say that “belly-flop” is a sugar coated version of what happened. But basically, my muscle memory vanished. I landed flat on my stomach and was gifted with a mortifying black eye for the next two weeks.

I’m not the only victim of this trick our brains play on us. I’m sure you could come up with a bunch of examples of how you butchered some activity in public. Hey, it’s what humans do!

Besides the fact that our brains absolutely love pranking us, there is a more scientific reason to this life-ruining phenomena. Neuroscientists at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre and Brighton and Sussex Medical School figured out the brain network that creates our ultimate demise when we least want it. 
 
 In their study, the neuroscientists monitored the participants’ brain activity (using functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging) as they assumed tasks that required them to exert force when gripping an object. Participants went through two exercises.
 
For the first one, the participants watched footage of people that made it seem as though they were being watched. For the second one, the participants executed the same tasks but watched footage of people who seemed to instead be watching others’ performances.

Ready for the verdict!? The participants felt more anxious when they thought they were being evaluated, which caused them to grip the object harder. No pressure! But, like, actually tons of pressure. 
 
Here’s where it gets trippy — when participants thought they were being observed, a section of their brain called the inferior parietal cortex (IPC) said “peace out” and completely shut down. This part of the brain helps us control fine sensorimotor functions and also works with the posterior superior temporal sulcus to form the action-observation network (AON).

The AON is basically the process of inferring what someone is thinking based on facial expressions and direction of gaze. So, if an observer seems to want us to do well, we will perform well (ideally). But, if we get negative cues, the IPC says “byeeeeee.”

So, in a nutshell, our brains enjoy betraying the f*ck out of us, just like my twin brother whenever he says he’ll hangout with me.
 
But there’s an upside! If you’re doing a simple activity such as running or weightlifting that doesn’t require complicated coordination, then the presence of observers could actually boost your game. So, if you’re trying to get ripped, head to a poppin’ gym — maybe just avoid showing off your parkour skills there. I wouldn’t want you to embarrass yourself…or would I?

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