Would you rather be anxious or excited? Harvard research suggests re-naming similar emotions may lead to better performance (beyond singing Karaoke).

fear-insightYou wouldn’t expect a Harvard business school professor to turn to Karaoke to learn about feelings and behavior under stress, but then again, you might not have heard of Alison Wood Brooks.


New research by Harvard business school professor Alison Wood Brooks suggests we can re-frame and re-name emotions like anxiety for better outcomes. 

In her study, participants were told to say out loud, right before their Karaoke performance of the song “Don’t Stop Believing”, the phrases, “I am excited!” or “I am anxious!” Brooks calls this “anxiety reappraisal”. 

Study participants who named their emotional state “excited” tended to perform much better at singing than those who labeled their feelings as “anxious”. The emotional and physical states of anxiety and excitement are both states of high arousal and thus can be hard to tell apart.  According to Dr. young people singing at karaokeBrooks, we can tell ourselves we’re excited, and focus on all the positive things that might happen if we sing in public, (applause, approval) versus all the things that could go wrong, (such as people laughing at us). In other words, these two states are so similar, we can convince ourselves we are experiencing either one, so we might as well go for the one that yields a better outcome.

At Six Seconds we have a favorite phrase, “Name it to tame it”, which refers to the ability to identify our feelings so we can decipher what these feelings are telling us and be more intentional about how we want to act. It’s the “Know Yourself” part of Six Seconds EQ model that anyone can learn. This research may show a new twist on that practice, you could call it “re-name it to tame it.”

You’re Just Fooling Yourself!John Doe

But, are we really able to “fool ourselves” so easily? Isn’t anxiety a stronger emotion? This research suggests that even if we know we’re trying to rename our anxious feelings excitement, the outcome of doing so is still significantly better than if we hadn’t tried. Next time you’re skydiving, try it and see.


businessmanPerformance Anxiety

Dr. Brooks’ research suggests that when preparing for an important public presentation, perhaps we don’t want to tell ourselves to “calm down”, as calm may not be the state of energy that will help us deliver an exciting talk. Maybe a case of nerves can be renamed a case of excitement. 

What if you are someone for whom stage fright is a real barrier? Many communications experts suggest getting in touch with the greater purpose underlying the content of your speech, song, poem or public presentation. If your talk is on how to connect with your teenager, take a quiet moment and feel how great it will be if some of these parents go home and have a heart to heart with their kids. Try to avoid thinking about how the audience will be judging your latest haircut.

work-team-blue-grWhat will shift as a result of what you are sharing? What feelings to you want your audience to leave with? This will shift the focus away from an egocentric worry about being judged and seeing yourself from the audience’s perspective, and toward the idea of being a conduit for something positive that will benefit your audience. Dr. Brooks’ research adds another layer of understanding for why this “anxiety reappraisal” works so well in all kinds of potentially anxiety-provoking situations.

In this short video, Olga Khazan, a reporter for The Atlantic magazine interviews Dr. Wood Brooks and tries out her theory in a Karaoke bar.


Rachel Goodman

Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and communications professional, editor, producer, and writer for effective outcomes. Ms. Goodman has been a radio producer for much of her career, specializing in short features and documentaries. Some of her work includes Southern Songbirds: the Women of Early Country Music, Pastures of Plenty: A History of California's Farmworkers, and The Boomtown Chronicles: Reflections on a Changing California. Ms. Goodman teaches journalism at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County. Her goals are to facilitate positive change in the world through effective communication, and to continue conducting her work with the highest level of integrity possible.

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