Everyone reacts differently to taking a test. There are the superstitious who wear charms or have rituals that must be done before test day. There are those who get nervous; just the thought of having to take the test makes them sick. There are those who don’t give the test a second thought until the day of. And there are even those who are excited for it. Why is it that some students thrive and other students crack under the pressure of test day? New research suggests that the way you react to pressure may be genetically coded into you from the day you are born.
In Taiwan, where you go to high school—or if you even go at all—is determined by how well you do on the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. Only 39 percent of students pass this two-day test, which covers subjects including chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry. Needless to say, there is a lot of pressure on the students taking the exam.
People react to pressure in many different ways, and researchers wanted to understand the genetics behind it. In their study to uncover the answer, researchers took blood samples from 779 students across Taiwan. They then matched the students’ genotypes to their test scores.
Researchers were interested in one gene in particular: the COMT gene. This gene clears up dopamine from the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that makes plans, resolves conflicts and makes decisions. Ideally, your brain has a balance between too much and too little dopamine.
There are two different variations of the gene, and we all have either one or a mixture of the two. One variant creates enzymes that slowly remove dopamine, whereas the other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. Under normal occasions having slow-acting enzymes is better. But under stress, we experience the opposite reaction. The brain is flooded with dopamine, you can’t focus well and it takes too long for the dopamine to be removed. Findings of the study support this by indicating that the Taiwanese students who had the slow-acting enzymes scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes.
Some scholars have suggested that we all fit into one of two categories: We are either Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, and those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers. Warriors do better in environments that need quick thinking and high performance levels, while Worriers are capable of more complex planning.
However, just because your genotype may make it harder for you to take standardized tests doesn’t mean you should stay away from all challenges. Douglas C. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, says that shielding Worriers from stress could be worse because they won’t be able to learn how to prepare and deal with high-stress situations in the future.
In the end, Warriors and Worriers both benefit from the stress that comes with test taking: Worriers learn to embrace and handle stress, and Warriors get to use their brains in situations where they work best.