by Dr. Amen
Trying to decide whether to buy a new car or not, while also being stressing about your in-laws coming for a visit? You might want to hold off on buying that car. A new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that feeling stressed changes how people weigh risk and reward. Specifically, we tend to pay more attention to the upside of a possible outcome when making decisions under stress.
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.”
But researchers have found that when people are put under stress they start paying more attention to positive information and discounting negative information. Because of this, stress seems to help people learn from positive feedback, but impair their learning from negative feedback.
In other words, when you are stressed about difficult decision, you will pay more attention to the upsides of the alternatives you’re considering and less to the downsides. So someone who’s deciding whether to take a new job and is feeling stressed by the decision might weigh the increase in salary more heavily than the worse commute.
The increased focus on the positive also helps explain why stress plays a role in addictions, and people under stress have a harder time controlling their urges. ”The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger and they’re less able to resist it,” Mather says. So a person who’s under stress might think only about the good feelings they’ll get from a drug, while the downsides shrink into the distance.
Stress also increases the differences in how men and women think about risk. When men are under stress, they become even more willing to take risks; when women are stressed, they get more conservative about risk. Mather links this to other research that finds, at difficult times, men are inclined toward fight-or-flight responses, while women try to bond more and improve their relationships.
The truth is making decisions under stress is unavoidable. If your child was involved in an accident and ends up in the hospital, that’s a very stressful situation with decisions that need to be made quickly. Even big decisions themselves can be sources of stress which ultimately just makes the situation worse. It’s very likely that how much stress you’re experiencing will affect the way you’re making the decisions.
A great way to lighten the load from stress is to meditate or pray on a regular basis. Decades of research have shown that meditation and prayer calm stress and enhance brain function. There are also a number of other very effective ways to manage stress such as regular exercise, listening to soothing music, limiting caffeine and avoiding things that are harmful to your brain such as alcohol. Next time you’re feeling stressed take a brisk walk and then listen to some relaxing music afterwards. It’s good for your brain, body and as shown here, it will help you make the right decision.