Feeling stressed changes the way people balance risk against reward, psychologists have found.
Surprisingly, being under stress makes people focus on the positive more than they would otherwise.
Professor Mara Mather, who co-authored the research, said:
“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.”
For example, 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 finding could help explain how stress interacts with addictive behaviours.
When under stress, people value the positive high more than the potential hangover.
The research also found 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 said:
“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).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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