Sian Beilock

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Sian Leah Beilock
Sian Beilock sitting in front of ruins in Rome, Italy in December 2007
Sian L. Beilock — Rome, Italy, December 2007
Born Berkeley, California, USA
Residence Chicago, Illinois, USA
Citizenship USA
Fields Psychology, education, neuroscience
Institutions The University of Chicago
Alma mater Michigan State University, Ph.D., M.A. University of California, San Diego, B.S.
Doctoral advisor Deb L. Feltz and Thomas H. Carr
Known for science of choking under pressure;
Notable awards 2012 Outstanding Early Career Award (Psychonomic Society)[1] Robert L. Fantz Memorial Award for Young Psychologists (2011-American Psychological Foundation)[2] 2017 Troland Research Award (National Academy of Sciences) [3]

Sian L. Beilock is the eighth President of Barnard College. Formerly, she was a professor of psychology and Executive Vice Provost at The University of Chicago, where she also served on the Committee on Education.[4]


Beilock graduated from the University of California, San Diego, where she received a B.S. in Cognitive Science with a minor in Psychology. She was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) from Michigan State University in 2003. From 2003 to 2005, she was an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Miami University. Since 2005, she has been on the faculty at The University of Chicago.[5]


Early career[edit]

During and subsequent to her PhD research, Beilock explored differences between novice and expert athletic performances. Her work demonstrated that because well-learned motor skills are performed largely outside conscious awareness, expert performers have poorer memories for the step-by-step process of their actions than their less experienced counterparts, which she termed "expertise-induced amnesia".[6][7] This discovery led Beilock to propose the explicit monitoring theory of choking under pressure, whereby stressful situations cause a breakdown in highly learned motor skills because, in an effort to control performance and ensure success, individuals pay attention to details of their actions that would normally run unconsciously, disrupting otherwise fluid performances.


Later in her career, Beilock's research focused on why people perform poorly in stressful academic situations, such as taking a high-stakes mathematics exam. Beilock found that worries during those situations rob individuals of the working memory or cognitive horsepower they would normally have to focus.[8] Working memory is similar to a mental scratchpad, facilitating the manipulation of information held in consciousness. When working memory is compromised, performance can suffer. Counter-intuitively, Beilock demonstrated that those students who have the highest working memory are the ones most likely to perform poorly in stressful exam situations.[9] Because people with more working memory rely on their brainpower more, they can be affected to a greater extent in stressful academic situations. There is debate about how to interpret high-stakes test scores.[10] Beilock's work demonstrated that stressful situations during tests might diminish meaningful differences between students that, under less-stressful situations, might exhibit greater differences in performance. This work raises the possibility that high-stakes standardized tests have been filtering out and excluding persons with the most working memory from acceptance to programs, jobs, and institutions which use such tests as screening mechanisms. Beilock's research on choking was chronicled in PBS’s Nova program "How Smart Can We Get?"[11]

In her work, Beilock has explored how simply being aware of a negative stereotype may affect performance (e.g. a girl aware of negative stereotypes regarding gender and math). Termed stereotype threat, Beilock has argued that this is another form of choking under pressure.[12] Beilock has also looked at math anxiety (i.e. a fear or apprehension of math or math-related tasks). She argued that math anxiety is not simply a proxy for poor math skills, but worries about the situation which may rob anxious individuals of the cognitive resources they would normally have. Moreover, she has shown how math anxiety can be passed from teacher to student. Specifically, when female elementary school teachers are anxious about their own math abilities, their female students may learn less math during the school year, and are more likely to endorse gender stereotypes regarding math.[13] Beilock has also explored the neural basis of math anxiety, showing that the brain areas active when highly math-anxious people prepare to do math overlap with the same brain areas that register the threat of bodily harm, and in some cases, physical pain.[14]

Finally, her work explores learning in math and science more broadly by elucidating the basic cognitive and neural building blocks of numerical ability.[15] She is also investigating how different types of science laboratory experiences (especially experiences that are highly interactive) help students learn physics concepts such as torque and angular momentum.[16] Her work has been funded by the Institute of Education Sciences[17] and the National Science Foundation,[18] including a CAREER award.[19]

On May 22, 2017 it was announced that Beilock would become the 8th president of Barnard College.[20]

Cognitive Science and Education[edit]

Beilock's research relates to educational practice and policy.[21] Her work demonstrates that students' attitudes and anxieties (as well as those of their teachers) are critical to student success.[citation needed] In her work, she has developed simple psychological interventions to help people perform their best under stress.[22] One intervention, expressive writing, is borrowed from James Pennebaker’s work. Beilock and her former PhD student, Gerardo Ramirez, have found that students – especially those highest in test anxiety – who write about their worries before a high-stakes test are less likely to perform poorly due to stress.[23]


  • Beilock, S. L. (2010). Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To. Simon & Schuster: Free Press.
  • Beilock, S. L. (2015). How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel. Simon & Schuster: Atria Books.


  1. ^ "2012 Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting". Psychonomic Society. Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  2. ^ "Robert L. Fantz Memorial Award for Young Psychologists". American Psychological Foundation (APF). Retrieved 6 February 2014. 
  3. ^ "2017 NAS Troland Research Award". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 11 March 2017. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Beilock, Sian L. "Faculty Homepage". University of Chicago. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  6. ^ Beilock, Sian L.; Carr, Thomas H. (2001). "On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure?". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 130 (4): 701–725. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.130.4.701. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  7. ^ Beilock, Sian L.; Carr, Thomas H.; MacMahon, Clare; Starkes, Janet L. (2002). "When paying attention becomes counterproductive: Impact of divided versus skill-focused attention on novice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 8 (1): 6–16. doi:10.1037/1076-898X.8.1.6. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  8. ^ Beilock, Sian L. (October 2008). "Math Performance in Stressful Situations". Current Directions in Psychological Science. 17 (5): 339–343. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00602.x. 
  9. ^ Beilock, Sian L.; Carr, Thomas H. (February 2005). "When High-Powered People Fail". Psychological Science. 16 (2): 101–105. PMID 15686575. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00789.x. 
  10. ^ Anderson, Jill (May 8, 2008). "Measuring Up: A Q&A with Professor Dan Koretz". Graduate School of Education, Harvard University. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  11. ^ "How Smart Can We Get?". NOVA. October 24, 2012 (air date). Retrieved 5 February 2014.  Check date values in: |date= (help) Sian Beilock is listed as a participant in this program.
  12. ^ Beilock, Sian L.; Rydell, Robert J.; McConnell, Allen R. (2007). "Stereotype threat and working memory: Mechanisms, alleviation, and spillover.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 136 (2): 256–276. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.136.2.256. 
  13. ^ Beilock, S. L.; Gunderson, E. A.; Ramirez, G.; Levine, S. C. (25 January 2010). "Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (5): 1860–1863. PMC 2836676Freely accessible. PMID 20133834. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910967107. 
  14. ^ Lyons, Ian M.; Beilock, Sian L.; Chapouthier, Georges (31 October 2012). "When Math Hurts: Math Anxiety Predicts Pain Network Activation in Anticipation of Doing Math". PLoS ONE. 7 (10): e48076. PMC 3485285Freely accessible. PMID 23118929. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048076. 
  15. ^ Lyons, Ian M.; Ansari, Daniel; Beilock, Sian L. (2012). "Symbolic estrangement: Evidence against a strong association between numerical symbols and the quantities they represent.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 141 (4): 635–641. doi:10.1037/a0027248. 
  16. ^ Kontra, Carly; Goldin-Meadow, Susan; Beilock, Sian L. (October 2012). "Embodied Learning Across the Life Span". Topics in Cognitive Science. 4 (4): 731–739. doi:10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01221.x. 
  17. ^ "An Exploration of Malleable Social and Cognitive Factors Associated with Early Elementary School Students' Mathematics Achievement". Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  18. ^ "Writing About Anxiety Helps Students Ace Exams". National Science Foundation. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  19. ^ "CAREER: Women in the Math and Sciences: Counteracting the Impact of Negative Group Stereotypes on Performance". National Science Foundation ( Retrieved 13 February 2014. 
  20. ^ "Leading Cognitive Scientist Sian Beilock Named 8th President of Barnard College | Barnard College". Retrieved 2017-05-22. 
  21. ^ Beilock, Sian (2011). "Back to school: Dealing with academic stress: Simple psychological interventions can reduce stress and improve academic performance". American Psychological Association. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  22. ^ Paul, Annie Murphy (April 13, 2012). "How to Be a Better Test-Taker". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  23. ^ Ramirez, G.; Beilock, S. L. (13 January 2011). "Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom". Science. 331 (6014): 211–213. PMID 21233387. doi:10.1126/science.1199427. 

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