Decision Making Under Stress

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • You're under pressure, probably spinning several plates at a time, but decisions have to be made and every decision has implications. It's a scenario that could apply as much to someone on the floor of the stock-market, to an air-traffic controller, to a mother trying to get the kids off to school and not be late for work herself.


    In a technical sense the word ‘stress' describes the point where our abilities to deal with situations or events become so diminished we find it hard or impossible to cope. To feel under stress is to feel distress, or is it? These days most people seem to understand that not all stress is bad for us, but our lives are complicated, so unpicking the parts of day that are distressing from those that aren't (yet are still stressful), isn't something we tend to dwell on. What seems to count is the accumulated effect of stress and the way the scales tip between what we can cope with successfully and what ultimately wears us down.

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    We spend a great deal of our time problem solving, so much in fact we probably don't pay much attention to it. We check the time, check our emails, work out what's for lunch, consider the best way to approach a tricky customer, and so the list goes on. Pile the pressure on and decision making often becomes more effortful and prone to errors.


    Do men and women have different approaches to decision making when under stress? According to a study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience the brain patterns of men and women are pretty similar but they start to vary when decisions have to be made under stress. According to the study, men appear to be more motivated to act quickly while women slow down. Is this just some weird anomaly or could there be a purpose to these differences? Perhaps there are advantages to both decision making styles, say the authors, depending on the nature of the decision, its short or long-term implications and the risks involved. Because men and women seem to have different perspectives perhaps it's a useful thing to mix the genders?


    But if adults think they feel stress they've probably forgotten what it really felt like to be a teenager. Researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles have discovered that teen brains find stress even more stressful than adults, particularly when having to make risky decisions. The difference, researchers speculate, is likely to relate to an area of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain helps regulate behavior, including understanding the future consequences of actions. In teenagers this area of the brain is still developing and probably helps to explain why some young people appear to do things without considering the implications.



    University of Southern California (2011, June 4). When stressed, men charge ahead, women more careful, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2011, from­ /releases/2011/06/110603125103.htm


Published On: July 04, 2011