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Decision time

21 March 2012

Decision making is a difficult process at the best of times but add some psychological stress into the equation and it becomes even more problematic. In a new paper reviewing studies into how stress affects decision making processes researchers have found some interesting results which may make you want to hold off on some decisions until the stress has subsided a little.

The studies indicate that when people are put under stress, either physical (putting your hand in a bucket of ice water) or psychological (having to give a speech), they start paying more attention to positive information and discounting negative information. It seems counterintuitive but stress seems to hinder learning from negative feedback.

This means that when people are under stress and are trying to make a decision they pay more attention to the upsides of the alternatives they are considering than to the downsides. So if someone is stressed and trying to decide whether to take a new job they are more likely to give weight to the increased salary than factor in the longer commute.

Stress is known to play a role in addictions and this suggests why. People under stress are more focused on achieving rewards so a stressed person might focus on the high of an addictive behaviour rather than the negative impacts of the behaviour or drug.

The review also found an interesting sex difference in how stress affects decision making in men and women. When men are under stress they become even more willing to take risks while stressed women become more conservative. The reasons for this are probably evolutionary in that under stress men go into a fight-or-flight mode while women try to strengthen relationships. Whatever the reasons though one can’t help but think that if we had had a few more female American bank executives and more women European politicians, we might not be looking down the barrel of GFC MK-II.