Stress has been shown to inhibit cognition, with a number of studies documenting its negative impact on memory. However, the problems might not stop there. Many of us have made big mistakes when we were stressed out. But, is there any evidence showing that stress really does hamper decision-making?
Stress & Decision Making:
One study tested the effect of stress on risk taking. Half of the participants in the study placed their hands in a pitcher of ice water for 3 minutes to induce stress, while the other half placed their hands in room temperature water (the control group). Afterwards, each participant performed a computer simulation game where you get points each time you press a button to blow up a balloon. However, each additional pump increases the risk that the balloon will pop, costing you all of your points. Men and women in the control group pumped the balloon roughly the same number of times. However, stress caused men to take significantly more risk and women to take significantly less.
Most decisions call for a weighing of rewards and risks. This study shows that stress causes men to overweight rewards and women to overweight risks. In most situations, this should lead to suboptimal outcomes. Other studies have also found that “stressors like time pressure and noise impaired decision-making, resulting in decision-making that is hurried, unsystematic, and lacks a full consideration of options.”
Unfortunately, our biggest decisions often come at times of great stress. As the researchers note, “decisions about finances, healthcare, and social relationships are frequently accompanied by stress or cause stress.” In these situations, delay making important decisions whenever possible.
Mather, Mara, and Nichole R. Lighthall. “Risk and reward are processed differently in decisions made under stress.” Current directions in psychological science 21.1 (2012): 36-41.