The Impact Stress Has On Decision Making – It’s not what most people expect!


Years of research (and plenty of real life experiences too!) have demonstrated that stress affects the way we think. Feeling stressed changes the way our brains process things. Neuroscientists can point to changes in the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, striatum, and insula areas of the brain for evidence of this but in the real world this equates to erratic behaviour, forgetfulness, attention narrowing and a range of other noticeable signs. One of the most critical areas that stress impacts is decision making.

Recent research on the impact that stress has on decision making processes has highlighted two findings. Firstly, that stress changes the way people consider the pros and cons of a situation. The risks versus the rewards, the benefits versus the consequences. Surprisingly, they found that being under stress enhances focus on previously rewarding outcomes and inhibits focus on previously negative outcomes.

Professor Mara Mather, co-author of the research, commented:

“This is sort of not what people would think right off the bat. Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you’d think, maybe I’m going to be more focused on the negative outcomes.

In fact, Professor Mather explained, the reverse is true:

“Stress seems to help people learn from positive feedback and impairs their learning from negative feedback.”

Psychologist Jeremy Dean puts this into a familiar scenario, “Imagine a person deciding whether to take a new job. When under stress, they might give more weight to benefits of a higher salary while ignoring the longer commute.

When not under stress, though, the negative aspects of the choice would matter more.

The findings could help explain how stress interacts with addictive behaviours”.

One of the important points from the research is that this bias happened when people had previous positive and negative outcomes to reflect upon. When under stress, people enhance the positive things their decision will bring them rather than the potential negatives, even if the decision was a bad one.

The second thing the research found was that men and women react differently under stress:

“…stress amplifies gender differences in strategies used during risky decisions, as males take more risk and females take less risk under stress.”

Professor Mather added:

“We make all sorts of decisions under stress. If your kid has an accident and ends up in the hospital, that’s a very stressful situation and decisions need to be made quickly. It seems likely that how much stress you’re experiencing will affect the way you’re making the decision.”


The study was published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science (Mather & Lighthall, 2012).

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Image Credit: Amy McTigue

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