The effect of stress on processing bad news
Generally, people have the tendency to notice good news and incorporate positive information into their existing beliefs. This optimism bias is good for motivation, productivity and wellbeing. But it can pose a problem and lead to negative outcomes when people underestimate the risk of bad news. Researchers wanted to understand if this general tendency of humans to prioritise good news varied according to different conditions.
The researchers conducted two experiments — one was in the lab and the other involved firefighters in Colorado, USA. The lab experiment involved 35 participants of which half were told at the beginning of the study they would need to deliver a speech on a surprise topic in front of a panel of judges after completing a task. This would elevate their stress levels. The other half of the participants were told they would complete an easy writing assignment at the end of the study.
The researchers found that the participants who were not stressed accepted the good news better than the bad.
For the task, the participants were asked to estimate the risk level of various threatening life events, such as being a victim of domestic burglary or credit card fraud. They were then told the real risks that were either good news or bad news, depending on how it compared to their estimate. Later the participants were asked to give new estimates of what they thought the risks would be for themselves.
The researchers found that the participants who were not stressed accepted the good news better than the bad. When told that the threatening event was more likely than they thought, these participants continued to underestimate some of the risks. However, the participants who were stressed or anxious internalised the bad news better than those who weren’t stressed.
The study shows that when people are stressed or anxious, they can process bad news better. It explains the benefit derived from an optimistic way of processing information while still taking heed of the risks in dangerous situations.
Source: The Journal of Neuroscience
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