The Boston Red Sox were leading 5-4 in the bottom of the 10th inning — one out away from winning the 1986 World Series and ending the team’s 68-year drought — when Bob Stanley threw a pitch in the dirt. The ball shot all the way to the backstop, giving the runner on third ample time to steal home, tying the game at five and sending the New York Mets, and the rest of Shea Stadium, into an all-out frenzy.

Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson was up to bat. The errant pitch put the count at three balls and two strikes, meaning one final whiff or well-placed strike would end it. Stanley checked the runner at second, then fired a fastball down and away. Wilson strained, but stuck out his bat just enough to slap a weak grounder down the line, toward the awaiting glove of first baseman Bill Buckner. Normally, it would've been a routine put-away, even for a Little Leaguer. But what happened next has since come to define sports’ obsession with choking under pressure.

Here’s famed Mets announcer Vin Scully calling the pitch:

Can you believe this ballgame at Shea? The winning run is at second base with two out, three and two to Mookie Wilson. … Little roller up along first, behind the bag. … It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!

Was Bill Buckner worried about losing or worried about winning? MLBClassics, YouTube

Buckner’s error forced a game 7, in which the Mets seized their renewed life and won handily by a score of 8-5. The Curse of the Bambino would ultimately continue for another 18 years, until the 2004 Red Sox won the whole thing. But of course that was not clear to Buckner in the moments following game 6. "The dreams," he said, during a press conference with a local Boston TV station, "are that you are going to have a great series and win, and the nightmares are that you are going to let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs. Those things happen, and I think a lot of it is just fate."

Why We Choke

When people talk about choking, they talk about the heartbreaking losses at the buzzer, the air balls from the free throw line, the missed putts from a foot away. For neuroscientists hoping to understand what’s going on during these moments of despair, the strange part is that, in theory, nothing should change. The game-winning free throw is the exact same free throw as the thousands taken during practice. But psychologically, the two cases look nothing alike.

According to Vikram Chib, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University, why you choke and, importantly, when you choke, may depend on the incentives you’re given to succeed. In a lot of cases, researchers turn to financial incentives to learn how they work, if only because they’re easier to recreate in the lab than a screaming stadium packed with fans. “How you process being watched by others and how you’re viewed by others can relate to why you choke in these situations,” Chib told Medical Daily. On Oct. 25, 1986, there were more than 55,000 people filling Shea Stadium, and millions more watching the game on television, yet there was only one Bill Buckner poised to field a bouncing ground ball. We can only guess as to how he thought he’d be viewed by others, but we know for certain he was being watched by them.

Lately, Chib is finding that how we frame big-time moments, like buzzer beaters or bouncing grounders, can wield a huge influence in whether those incentives cause us to choke. In a recent study, he and a team of researchers gave 26 people $100 and instructions on how to play a simple game. It involved moving a green circle and a yellow circle into one box, but the two circles were connected by a virtual spring, so moving them independently was tricky. Subjects had two seconds to accomplish the task.

A simple game is made all the more complex when $100 is on the line. When you get that $100 may matter more, however. Vikram Chib, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Before each round, the researchers would set the stakes: anything from gaining $100 to losing $100. Afterward, they asked people whether they’d take certain coin toss gambles depending on the stakes involved. One example was a $4 gain and a $2 loss. How people answered determined what economists call their level of “loss aversion.” People who are more loss-averse would see a $5 loss as a bigger emotional defeat than the joy of winning the same $5. When Chib and his team cross-checked the two experiments, they found some surprising trends among those who choked.

“If you have $100 to lose,” he said, “those people who were more loss-averse actually did better for potential losses. They did not choke under pressure, and those people who were less loss-verse did choke under pressure. So it’s kind of the exact opposite of the gain condition.”

Effectively, what he’s saying is that people who have a lot to lose and really don’t like losing (even more than they like winning), end up doing fine. It’s the people who find greater joy in winning than sadness in losing that choke. This was counter-intuitive for Chib. It might seem strange that people who are averse to losing end up doing better than the people who are hungry for victory, as the common wisdom might suggest those people aren’t “fighters” who “don’t want it as badly.” But Chib thinks the explanation may be pretty straightforward if you consider how the incentive is framed.

“There are two time points in the task,” he said. “There’s the time I present you with the potential incentive and there’s the time that you act on it.” When you hear you might win $100, that value is still imaginary — you don’t have the money yet — but you already tuck it away in your mental piggybank. You think you have it. But then when the time comes to act, you reframe it as having $100 to lose, so you choke. On the other hand, in the loss condition, Chib suspects loss-averse people have time to ruminate on what’s at stake. They can prepare themselves to take a hit, so they actually forget about the money and instead concentrate on the task at hand.

The MRI scans back this up. When people first learned the stakes of each trial, the part of their brain in charge of rewards, the ventral striatum, lit up. As people played the game, those with more loss aversion saw a dimming of striatal activity and performed worse when playing for large potential gains, while those with low loss aversion saw the same dimming and performed worse on tasks to avoid large potential losses. Chib speculates this indicates the ventral striatum is the interface between reward-driven behavior and the execution of a certain performance. At its most basic level, the neural link could trace back millions of years.

“It made sense to be loss averse,” he said, particularly for animals in the wild who put great value in not getting eaten. How that translated into the pressure of missing a free throw, unfortunately, is still anyone’s guess. As Chib explains, “it seems like a maladaptive behavior.”

Avoiding Future Curses

So did Bill Buckner have high loss aversion and see the ground ball as a means to win? Or did he have low loss aversion and see it as an unfortunate ticket to game 7? We may never know the answers to these questions. But in the meantime, researchers will keep studying the science of choking for its application in more relevant fields, such as surgery, aviation, and test-taking, and weighing these tasks on a balance with the incentives involved. Chib, for instance, has visions of putting people inside an MRI scanner as they’re told an entire auditorium is watching, just to see how the subjects squirm.

Maybe they’ll fail harder. Or maybe they’ll actually perform better, he says, due to the concept of “social facilitation.” Rather than see hundreds of people as a social threat, some may see it as gesture of camaraderie, so their focus sharpens and their performance improves. Indeed, if the 55,000-plus fans in attendance that October night had been Boston’s own, not a thumping pack of orange and blue, the outcome might have been very different. A team’s decades-long curse might have ended, instead of igniting a new one for its unlucky first-baseman.