How well your child does on standardized tests may be genetic, and knowing how they are genetically programmed to respond to stress could make a big difference in their lives. Natalie Brown steered me toward this fascinating article that explains the difference between worriers and warriors.
I’ve always liked standardized tests. Please don’t shoot me for admitting that. Sure, they stress me out, and I haven’t always done as well as I expected on them, but for the most part, they treat me right. I taught LSAT prep at Kaplan not just for the amazing pay (ha!), but because, well, I enjoy the LSAT. While I was teaching for Kaplan, I even considered taking the other standardized tests for, well, fun.
But for some people, standardized tests are a fate worse than death, and that may be because of their genes. The acute stress of a high-stakes test produces not what we have long thought of as a “fight or flight” response, but rather either a “fight response” or a “flight response”. About 50% of people have a “normal” response to stress wherein they perform as well in high-stakes situations as they do in low-stakes situations. It’s the other half of the population that’s divided into Warriors vs. Worriers.
About a quarter of us are warriors. Warriors view the stressful situation as a challenge and puff out their chests ready to fight. These tend to be the slacker geniuses who aren’t stimulated enough (literally, don’t get enough dopamine to the brain) by every day life, but with the additional stress of a high-stakes situation, they rise to the occasion and deliver clutch performances. Their brains which clear dopamine faster than average are uniquely qualified to shine in high-stress situations. As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman put it, “They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.”
The other 25% are the worriers. Worriers tend to have higher IQ’s actually, and to over-achieve on a day-to-day basis. Their brains are slow to clear dopamine which allows them to focus and exhibit higher executive function and self-control than average. Unfortunately, those same slow-clearing brains are crippled by the flood of dopamine that a high-stakes situation unleashes, and the worriers can cave. We’ve all met these people who are really, really smart, but don’t test well.
Which are you?
I’m pretty sure I’m in the normal 50% leaning toward worrier. I sing about as well in performances as in rehearsals (sometimes better, sometimes worse) despite horrible stage fright. I perform almost as well on standardized tests that count as I do on the practice exams beforehand. My public speaking is always better than my private practice. I think I’m about average, although because I’m extroverted, I usually get a charge out of performing for and teaching others that brings me above my solo capacity.
But my kids might not be.
So What Can We Do About It?
The big questions this research begs are 1) how do worriers compensate in high stress situations, and 2) how do warriors compensate in everyday life.
1. Better living through pharmaceuticals.
I have many worrier friends who medicate either with beta blockers or Xanax (or whiskey?) before auditions, performances and tests. I tried beta blockers myself, but they made me too tired to do my best.
2. Think about stress differently.
If pharmaceuticals are not your thing, don’t worry (couldn’t resist). Turns out one of the most effective methods of improving worriers’ performance in high-stakes situations is to have them read a statement that says something like, “stress often helps people do better on tests,” before taking the test. Just the suggestion that the stress might be a positive helps them handle it better.
3. Train for the specific stressful situation.
The other arrow in the quiver is to practice the exact stressful situation. High stakes standardized tests present one of the best examples of the type of short term stressor that can sink an otherwise over-achieving worrier. However, if the worriers practice taking standardized tests under circumstances as closely mimicking the actual test as possible, they can actually outperform warriors. Ever since I’ve learned this, I try to sing in the room I’m going to perform in beforehand–especially if it’s an audition. I find it really helps.
For warriors, I haven’t seen a lot of solutions. I’m pretty sure the articles I read were written by worriers for worriers with worrier kids. It makes sense if you have a warrior, however, to try to increase the stress or stakes of those mundane nuisances like doing daily homework with rewards or timed situations. Anything that elevates the level of challenge should give warriors a bit more dopamine to let out their inner Superman.
I remember a classic warrior from high-school. He didn’t bother to come to school much. He didn’t get great grades. But he rocked out his ACT’s and under the stress of debate competition and the pressure of the time crunch in extemproaneous speaking, he lept tall buildings in a single bound. I used to think he just didn’t try hard enough on his homework. Now I think maybe his homework didn’t try hard enough on him.