National Academy of Sciences honors Prof. Sian Beilock for psychology research

Sian Beilock, the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology, has been awarded the 2017 Troland Research Award for her pioneering work on anxiety and performance in high-stress situations.

The National Academy of Sciences gives the award annually to two investigators no older than 40 to recognize their unusual achievements and to further research in the field of experimental psychology. The honor is accompanied by a $75,000 prize.

“Uncovering the brain and body factors that explain why we sometimes perform poorly in highly stressful situations has tremendous implications for our daily lives,” Beilock said. “It is an honor to have this research recognized by the National Academy, and I look forward to furthering our understanding of how worries, anxiety and pressure relate to learning and performance from the classroom to the athletic field to the workplace.”

The research of Beilock, who is executive vice provost at the University, sits at the intersection of cognitive science and education, exploring how the brain, mind and body support learning and why performance breaks down in high-stress or high-pressure situations. In her laboratory, the Human Performance Lab, Beilock uses research methods ranging from performance on tests to neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI to better understand how thinking and reasoning change when the pressure is on and the techniques people can successfully employ to perform their best when it matters most. Her work also takes her into the classroom to conduct large-scale studies with students from early elementary school through college.

In addition to Beilock’s work exploring “choking under pressure” in all types of performance situations, from test-taking and public speaking to athletics, she also has investigated the power the body and its physical surroundings have in shaping how humans think, feel and behave. Beilock’s recent work has examined the anxiety parents and their children feel about doing math and how this math anxiety can hinder children’s school achievement.

Beilock’s research has resulted in more than 100 scientific papers and two critically acclaimed books: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveals About Getting It Right When You Have To and How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel. Her work has produced wide-ranging insights into education, athletic performance and workplace training, resulting in techniques through which people can improve their performance both in daily tasks and on some of the world’s largest stages.

A member of the University faculty since 2005, Beilock joined the Provost’s office in the fall of 2014 as vice provost for academic initiatives. She was named executive vice provost last year. 

Beilock will be honored April 30 at a ceremony during the National Academy of Sciences’ 154th annual meeting. This is the second year in a row that a member of the UChicago faculty was selected for the Troland award; David Freedman, a professor of neurobiology, received the honor in 2016.