Stress changes how people weigh risk and reward, with those under pressure paying more attention to the upside of a possible outcome, a new study has revealed.
It’s a bit surprising that stress makes people focus on the way things could go right, said Mara Mather of the University of Southern California, who co-author the new study with Nichole R Lighthall.
“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,” Mather says.
But researchers have found that when people are put under stress by being told to hold their hand in ice water for a few minutes, for example, or give a speech, they start paying more attention to positive information and discounting negative information.
“Stress seems to help people learn from positive feedback and impairs their learning from negative feedback,” Mather noted.
This means when people under stress are making a difficult decision, they may pay more attention to the upsides of the alternatives they’re considering and less to the downsides. So someone who’s deciding whether to take a new job and is feeling stressed by the decision, might weigh the increase in salary more heavily than the worse commute.
The increased focus on the positive also helps explain why stress plays a role in addictions, and people under stress have a harder time controlling their urges.
“The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger and they’re less able to resist it,” Mather said. So a person who’s under stress might think only about the good feelings they’ll get from a drug, while the downsides shrink into the distance.
Stress also increases the differences in how men and women think about risk. When men are under stress, they become even more willing to take risks; when women are stressed, they get more conservative about risk.
Mather links this to other research that finds, at difficult times, men are inclined toward fight-or-flight responses, while women try to bond more and improve their relationships. “It seems likely that how much stress you’re experiencing will affect the way you’re making the decision,” Mather added.