“Why can some kids handle pressure while others fall apart?” The question is answered, scientifically, in a lengthy New York Times Magazine article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.

They begin with Noah, an eighth grade boy who used to get so anxious and upset about taking standardised tests that his mother managed to get him exempted — and now he enjoys his maths and science classes again. His brother never worried about the tests but he has been withdrawn from them too. That is one mother’s answer to test pressure, pressure that the authors think has gone too far.

But the US scene seems like moderation itself compared with what happens in Taiwan, where, every May, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students — an incredibly difficult exam that determines whether they get into a good (or any) high school and thus in many ways determines their future.

There, Chun-Yen Chang, director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University, and a research team have suggested an answer to the question, why do some kids (or anyone) cope with pressure and not others?

It comes down to genetics, to the COMT gene and a related enzyme whose job is to clear enough dopamine from the prefrontal cortex of the brain so that it can get on with its jobs of planning, making decisions, anticipating future consequences and resolving conflicts.

Everyone has this gene, but there are two versions of it. One variant builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine. The other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. We all carry the genes for one or the other, or a combination of the two.

It gets a bit complicated here, but normally, having the slow-acting variant is an advantage. But under stress, which floods the pre-frontal cortex with dopamine, the fast-acting enzyme gives an advantage.

To test this idea Chang and colleagues took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the Basic Competency Test in three regions of Taiwan. They matched each student’s genotype to his or her test score. And, sure enough:

The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.

So this a biological reason why some people need stress to perform well while other perform best without it. On that basis,

Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.

In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.

Now, what interests me about the biological approach to behaviour is the part that mind plays over (grey) matter. And here it is:

Research amongst pilots in the US shows that Worriers, “through training, … can learn to manage the particular stress in the specific pilot training, even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives,” according to one expert. He adds, “Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.”

One psychologist says representing stress as beneficial to students can help Worriers to use it better. Competition is not necessarily a bad thing, the experts seem to say, but some forms of competition are easier to see as “challenges” rather than threats. Sports competitions are among the former, where winning need not be everything because there are other gains. Academic competition can be like that, too, but with standardised tests, “the only thing anyone cares about is the final score,” the article notes. So here are some useful ideas about helping kids to get used to the stress of competition and use it well:

David and Christi Bergin, professors of educational and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri, have begun a pilot study of junior high school students participating in math competitions. They have observed that, within a few weeks, students were tackling more complex problems than they would even at the end of a yearlong class. Some were even doing college-level math. That was true even for students who didn’t like math before joining the team and were forced into it by their parents. Knowing they were going up against other teams in front of an audience, the children took ownership over the material. They became excited about discovering ever more advanced concepts, having realized each new fact was another weapon in their intellectual arsenal.

In-class spelling bees. Science fairs. Chess teams. “The performance is highly motivating,” David Bergin says. Even if a child knows her science project won’t win the science fair, she still gets that moment to perform. That moment can be stressful and invigorating and scary, but if the child handles it well, it feels like a victory.

“Children benefit from competition they have prepared for intensely, especially when viewed as an opportunity to gain recognition for their efforts and improve for the next time,” says Rena Subotnik, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association. Subotnik notes that scholastic competitions can raise the social status of academic work as well as that of the contestants. Competitions like these are certainly not without stress, but the pressure comes in predictable ebbs and flows, broken up by moments of fun and excitement.

Take-home message: high stakes testing isn’t going away, and neither is one’s genetic make-up. So what the Noahs of this world need is not to be exempted from it altogether, but to experience more low-stakes and enjoyable forms of competition.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet