Stress Impacts How We Make Decisions

Posted by Lindsay Starke on Wednesday, February 29, 2012 at 4:03PM

It likely comes as no surprise that being under stress changes how we make decisions. Researchers investigating how strenuous circumstances affect our ability to decide have shown that stress impacts how we weigh risk and reward, as well as makes us focus harder on the positive.

It's a bit surprising that stress makes people focus on the way things could go right, says Mara Mather of the University of Southern California, who cowrote the new review paper with Nichole R. Lighthall. "This is sort of not what people would think right off the bat," Mather says. "Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you'd think, maybe I'm going to be more focused on the negative outcomes."

Instead, Mather noted, when people were put under stressful circumstances (such as holding a hand in ice water or giving a speech), they tended to pay attention to positive information while ignoring or discounting negative information. For example, if one were unhappy at her job, she might be more likely to focus on the steady paycheck while ignoring her own bad feelings about how work makes her feel. Research has also found that, under stress, men tend to become more willing to take risks, while women become more risk-averse.

Increasingly, evidence has shown that we are not completely rational when making decisions, whether under stress or not. The human brain constantly makes predictions in order to plan the future; now it seems that as a predictor, it might be slightly biased toward the positive. Though this could hurt us by keeping us in uncomfortable circumstances, a slight optimistic bias also helps us to steel our way through difficult decisions by allowing us to see the best of even a stressful situation.

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