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A pernicious paradox in human motivation is the occasional reduced performance associated with tasks and situations that involve larger-than-average rewards. Three broad explanations that might account for such performance decrements are attentional competition (distraction theories), inhibition by conscious processes (explicit-monitoring theories), and excessive drive and arousal (overmotivation theories). Here, we report incentive-dependent performance decrements in humans in a reward-pursuit task; subjects were less successful in capturing a more valuable reward in a computerized maze. Concurrent functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed that increased activity in ventral midbrain, a brain area associated with incentive motivation and basic reward responding, correlated with both reduced number of captures and increased number of near-misses associated with imminent high rewards. These data cast light on the neurobiological basis of choking under pressure and are consistent with overmotivation accounts.

Original publication




Journal article


Psychological science

Publication Date





955 - 962


Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, Functional Imaging Laboratory, University College London, UK.


Mesencephalon, Gyrus Cinguli, Corpus Striatum, Frontal Lobe, Prefrontal Cortex, Humans, Oxygen, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Brain Mapping, Orientation, Motivation, Achievement, Individuality, Maze Learning, Reward, Pattern Recognition, Visual, Motion Perception, Psychomotor Performance, Arousal, Attention, Video Games, Image Processing, Computer-Assisted, Adult, Female, Male, Young Adult