Risk and reward under stress

Much of the research on stress and cognition has focused on how stress affects memory. But we are now learning that stress also impacts decision making.

Hold off on making those big decisions when you feel you have too much on your plate. Feeling stressed alters how you calculate risk and reward. It might be better to first focus on crossing the little things off your list until you feel more in control, and then try to conquer the big issues. A new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, reviews how, under stress, people tend to pay more attention to the upside of a possible outcome while discounting the downside.

When researchers induce stress on subjects in a controlled situation (by telling them they are required to give a public presentation, for example), they find that more attention is paid to positive information and less to the negative. A real life example would be when someone is stressed and deciding whether or not to take a new job, they may weigh the increase in salary more heavily than the longer working hours and decrease in free time.

“It’s a bit surprising that stress makes people focus on the way things could go right,” says Mara Mather in a press release. Dr. Mather, who co-wrote the review paper with Nichole R. Lighthall, is at the University of Southern California. “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.”

Decision making involves complex and sometimes competing brain circuits that compute the potential or reward value of certain outcomes, versus those circuits that take into account uncertainty and risk. The authors find that stress enhances how “rewarding” we think a certain outcome may be by activating the dopamine/reward circuits of the brain. While it may seem counterintuitive, stress can help people learn from feedback that is positive, but impairs the integration of negative feedback.

The increased focus on the positive also helps explain why stress plays a role in addictions. Under stress, you would have a harder time controlling your urges. “The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger and they’re less able to resist it,” Mather says. A person who’s under stress might think only about the good feelings they’ll get from a drug, while the possible negative repercussions of taking the drug fade in comparison.

Their review also sheds light on the difference between the sexes when it comes to stress. Men under stress become more willing to take risks, while women become less likely to take risks.

Knowing that your decision-making abilities are affected by stress, you can optimize your results by taking a deep breath before making that big choice, or even postponing the decision until you feel more calm. When in doubt, remember to breathe.

  1. Craig Garber

    Actually, this makes perfect sense. When you are under stress, your survival instinct kicks in and you inherently gravitate towards those decisions or actions that are most likely to relieve some of the stress you are experiencing.

  2. Aron Day

    Wow! Great newsletter BR Team. I would never have thought that when stressed, one would focus on a more positive outcome. I will be referring my friends to My Brain Solutions- much love : )

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