Does stress alter the decisions we make?

Does stress serve to alter the way in which people make decisions? New research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests it does, but a British clinical psychologist has expressed his doubts.

In the new study, which considered how individuals pay greater attention to positive possible outcomes when under such pressure, investigators from the University of Southern California argued that it is surprising that being under duress can help to focus people on the way in which matters might prove in their favour.

Mara Mather of the learning institute stated: "Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you'd think, maybe I'm going to be more focused on the negative outcomes."

Ms Mather explained feeling the heat appears to encourage individuals to learn from positive feedback, while also restricting them from taking on negative responses. 

According to the findings, this focus explains why stress is an important factor in addictions - they are less able to resist the compulsion to gain rewards.

However, Dai Williams, a Chartered Psychologist, comments:

"I view this brief report with caution. There are many different causes of stress, from personal, work and social settings.

"How resilient individuals are depends greatly on individual differences such as physical fitness, training and experience for the source of stress in question. 

"Experienced workers in stressful occupations, eg, sports or emergency services, can deliver peak performance for short periods under stress.
"But for many people coping with diverse and unpredictable stress e.g. in extended loss situations (unemployment, separation, bereavement etc) or fear of losing their job or close relationships, stress can seriously impair decision making.

"Multiple factors affect short term memory, vigilance, strategic thinking and relationships.

"These can have serious consequences for individuals and organisations if senior
decision makers are affected.

"The reported conclusion that stress may focus people on positive outcomes may
depend on the selection of subjects and types of stress studied.

"Stress alters decision making, but usually in negative ways for people without good fitness and well developed stress management skills.

"But the research may be helpful to explore why some individuals make dangerously optimistic decisions under stress."