Sitting alone in a dim room in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Earl flung his arm to the left. He slowed his movement down, examining the position of a cursor on the computer screen in front of him. Where his hand went, so did the cursor. Earl gestured the dot closer to a colorful target zone, just as he had done thousands of times before. This time, he expected a big reward, but instead—time’s up. Earl, a rhesus monkey, choked under the pressure. He didn’t move the dot into the target before the timer ran out.

Choking is when high stakes cause you to fail when you otherwise would have succeeded. In basketball, it’s missing free throws late in a game; during a dance recital, or spelling bee, or job interview, it’s the paradox of overanalyzing and amnesia that leaves you feeling like an alien in your own body. “You overthink it, you get too much in your head,” says Steven Chase, a biomedical engineer at Carnegie Mellon who specializes in motor learning.

And yet, while choking is a common experience, its basis in the brain remains a mystery. What are the patterns of electrical signals and brain chemicals that explain choking—and where do they occur? Researchers have proposed theories based on human behavior and brain imaging. But to eventually perform neurological tests, the kind that involve implanted electrodes, they’ve needed to first observe the phenomenon in a lab animal.

For now, they’ve got Earl—plus Nelson and Ford, two other rhesus monkeys—and a simpler test that only involves observing their motion with a camera. Chase’s team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh have shown for the first time that people are not the only primates that choke under pressure. The results appear in this week’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers show that what triggers this behavior is the shot at an extraordinary prize—and their analysis offers clues as to why that might be. In the cursor-based game, the monkeys were tested on how quickly and accurately they moved a target into a box. The monkeys performed better as the reward offered to them improved: nothing for failure, and increasingly large sips of water for success. Until the jackpot—a really big swig of water. Monkeys who expected that rare and more valuable prize failed at tasks they’d normally ace.

Demonstrating choking in other species is interesting, and valuable for the field, says Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist not involved in the study, who wrote a 2011 book on choking. “What I think it does is open up another opportunity to study it,” Beilock says. “If you can get a better sense of the underlying systems, you can start thinking about different ways to mitigate it.”

“Until this, it was just a weird thing humans did,” says Aaron Batista, a bioengineer at the University of Pittsburgh who co-led the work with Chase. But now a proposed model of choking could help researchers decode the neural signals of movement in high-stakes scenarios—for athletes using their limbs when the game is on the line or, perhaps one day, for humans using prosthetics they control with their brains.