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More PsychNotes: Stress and Coping

June 23, 2017       
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Uncertainty, Decision-making, and Stress
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Certainty is an illusion we create to feel more comfortable.
Even simple decisions like “What do you want for dinner?” are difficult for me when I'm under stress: “I don't know! I don't want to make a decision!” “All I asked is what you want for dinner.” So I have to make sure I use stress management skills so I don't get irritable over ridiculously silly things.

Why would such a simple decision cause irritability? Because a decision means a potential mistake is nearby. When stressed, the brain doesn't evaluate the risk-level of the mistake, it just recognizes that a mistake could occur. When not stressed, the brain can assess the situation and say “This decision doesn't matter that much—the consequences are not significant.” Even simple decisions require the effort of evaluating the reward/risk ratio and when we are under stress we often don't want to make the effort.

How does stress affect decision-making?

A review of over 30 studies on decision-making (Starcke and Brand, 2016) shows that as uncertainty about the outcome increases stress negatively affects decision-making in several ways:

1) Seek immediate reward. We are less likely to delay gratification when stressed. We want to feel better so we make decisions based on an immediate reward even if it's unrelated to the cause of our stress and may have long-term negative consequences.

2) Increase risks. When we under stress we are willing to take greater risks to get more immediate results. As risk increases, poorer outcomes result from a decision.

3) Hurried decision-making. Stress reduces the likelihood of considering all the options. The less thought put into a decision, the greater the likelihood of a mistake.

Why does greater uncertainty cause poorer decision-making?

Uncertainty is uncomfortable. People don't want to feel uncomfortable. People don't fear decision-making, they fear the uncertainty of the outcome and the possibility of a mistake. The more uncertainty, the greater the chance of making a mistake. As a result, uncertainty about a decision, especially important decisions, adds stress when a person is already stressed.

Certainty is an illusion we create to feel more comfortable. People crave certainty and want the comfort of certainty even when it is not real because certainty reduces stress. Unfortunately, though, when we delude ourselves with certainty, we may reduce immediate stress but increase long-term stress due to making more hurried and risky decisions.

Starcke, K. and Brand, M. (2016). Effects of Stress on Decisions Under Uncertainty: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 142, 909–933. DOI:10.1037/bul0000060


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