How Stress Affects our Choices

Medical Reviewer

Decisions. From the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep, our lives are full of them. Agreed, many of our daily routines come down to simple decisions like one meal choice over another, or the black over the brown shoes, but sometimes our decision making takes place under stress, and that's when things get interesting.

Men and women tend to reveal certain differences when it comes to decision- making under stress. For example, men will often take more risks whilst women will become more reserved. In this context, male behavior seems focused around the key role of the stress response, which is some form of immediate (fight-or-flight) response. Women, by contrast, appear to invest more energy into relationship building and conflict resolution. It's clear that the decisions we make are influenced by our emotions and the sense that, in some way, making the right choice will reward us. What's interesting however is that stress seems to make us focus more on positive rather than negative outcomes.

Researchers at the University of California have found that stress appears to impair learning from negative feedback. A person under stress tends to focus on the upside of an outcome, say accepting a promotion in a different location, rather than its negatives - in this example the commute time and the additional cost of travel. This focus on positive outcomes explains why, for example, people with addictions turn to their drug of choice when under stress because the rewards appear so much more compelling than the negatives associated with that decision.

Decision making under stress appears to make us focus on the way things might go well, rather than evaluating the negative outcomes. The amount of stress will also influence the choices made. We sometimes find ourselves in situations that are stressful, which in turn require one or more difficult decisions to be made. One example might be being asked whether a risky operation should be undertaken on a child. Leave the child alone and they may live for a few more months, operate and there is a chance they may live for years, or die on the operating table.

Stress can have the effect of making some people freeze: they find themselves incapable of making any decision at all. Usually, an acutely stressful situation leaves people flustered. They find it hard to focus, hard to recall information and hard to problem-solve. In such situations it is sometimes easier to turn to others and seek their advice. This provides a few moments to settle and consider all the options, not just the one's that hold up the promise of something positive.


M. Mather, N.R. Lighthall. 'Risk and Reward are Processed Differently in Decisions Made Under Stress.' Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2012; 21 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411429452.