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On Cockroaches and Performance Anxiety

Sometimes you read something that has a way of getting into your head, and causing you to rethink a lot of assumptions, understandings and opinions that might otherwise pass completely unchanged. For me, one of those sometimes can be summed up into two ideas: cockroaches and social pressure, the implications of which I’m sure will lead to many a thought on how people tick.

What’s the relation? It turns out, following studies outlined in the book The Upside of Irrationality that our performance is invariably affected by the pressure of performing when all eyes; however many there are, land on us. In humans, the studies were done with anagrams. Participants of one group were asked to complete a series of anagrams in private, while the other group was asked to go up to a board and solve them in front of an audience. The participants with an audience scored worse. In the case of cockroaches – and this is where it gets fascinating for me – lone bugs were “tested” on their ability to run a straight line, and two navigate a maze. This was the control group. The experiment was to determine the effect of having another cockroach within perceptible distance. The subject bug and the “social pressure bug” were placed in a plexiglass container, so that the subject bug could see and smell the other roach. The result? In the simple, straight-line task, the bug performed better. In the complex, maze-task, the bug performed considerably worse, if indeed it was able to navigate the maze at all.

What are the implications of this bug business for language learning? Well, obviously we’re humans and not bugs, but let’s not forget the anagram experiment. It would seem that for simple tasks, we perform better with an audience, but the opposite is true if the task is too challenging.

This lends an explanation to something that any of us who’ve learned or taught language are probably well aware: we often perform very well in the safe environment of the classroom, or with small groups, or even one on one with a teacher, but when it comes to real-world language production, we choke.

The solution? Like the cockroaches with the simple task, I think perhaps we need to set ourselves, and our students, up to be able to perform language tasks we can complete with ease in front of a group, or in the real world, to gain confidence as we build our skills. Conversely, setting a student up to fail in public by making them perform far beyond their abilities is likely a waste of time a best, and detrimental to future progress at worst.

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