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Stress affects the way we make decisions

Heather Rudow February 29, 2012

(Photo:Flickr/bark)

When making an important decision, University of Southern California researchers are recommending that you keep your stress levels down, as their new study reveals that when under stress, people tend to look more at the positive outcomes of a situation.

“This is sort of not what people would think right off the bat,” explains co-author Mara Mather. “Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you’d think, ‘Maybe I’m going to be more focused on the negative outcomes?’”

The researchers found that when people are put under stress, whether it’s putting a hand in cold water or giving a speech, they start weighing risk and reward differently, and they actually pay more attention to positive information and discount negative information.

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

The increased focus on the positive as well helps explain the role stress plays for those trying to overcome their addictions.

“The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger, and they’re less able to resist it,” Mather said.

Stress can also affect whether people decide to take a job with a worse commute because they are so focused on the higher salary.

The effects of stress also differ between genders: men under stress become more willing to take risks, whereas women become more conservative.

Mather said this can be linked to previous research that found that men are more inclined to turn to their fight-or-flight responses during times of stress, while women tend to look to bonding and improving their relationships.

“We make all sorts of decisions under stress,” Mather said. “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.”

A nationwide report on stress found that it is also linked with chronic diseases.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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