How stress impacts decision making

By Professor John Maule

About the author

John Maule is an Emeritus Professor in Human Decision Making and member of the Centre for Decision Research.

Major political changes in Europe and the USA mean that senior managers in organisations are facing new challenges and experiencing very high levels of uncertainty when making key decisions. These conditions are likely to induce high levels of stress in decision makers, given the difficulties in determining the actions to take now that are likely to lead to good outcomes in this uncertain future. 

Stress is likely to occur when our progress towards achieving an important goal (e.g. expanding sales or developing new markets) is being blocked and we do not have any obvious way to overcome the problem. We experience stress psychologically as feelings of worry and anxiety, and physically as heightened arousal and the production of chemicals in the blood that mobilise us to action.

These changes impact on decision making in several ways. Feelings of worry tend to be very distracting, reducing our ability to think effectively about the decision in hand and increasing our reliance on intuitive thinking (a type of thinking known to be vulnerable to error and bias). Research also shows that thinking becomes much narrower in focus, leading decision makers to neglect important information necessary for developing creative solutions. Creative solutions often involve taking account of new sources of information that were previously not thought of as core. Stress also leads to premature closure – fast decision making that is motivated by a wish to terminate the stressful decision situation rather than a wish to choose the best option.

However, stress is not all bad: it can help us to focus on important problems that we might otherwise ignore and provide the impetus necessary to take action. Without the pressure of deadlines, many decisions would never be taken! However, we tend to experience more of the negative effects of stress than the positive ones.

There are ways to reduce the negative impact of stress on decision making. One way is to think about situations and potential problems before they become stressful. For example, setting realistic rather than over ambitious goals reduces the chance of not achieving your target; considering in advance what could go wrong and how we should respond to it allows us to think through solutions when we are not under pressure, therefore eliminating stress related biases in decision making.

A second way of reducing the negative impact of stress is to involve others; by providing different perspectives on the problem, others can help us overcome the narrowing of thinking that occurs under stress.

Finally, having a strong social support network is critical for helping us manage and contain the strong psychological and physiological effects of stress that can be so damaging to the decision making and the choices these individuals make - maintaining good relationships with friends and family is vital.

Professor John Maule has featured in two short videos published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. In the first, he talks about the conditions likely to induce stress, how stress can affect the nature and quality of decision making and strategies for reducing the detrimental impact of stress on decision making. In the second video he discusses stress in the context of the record-breaking long-distance sailor, Hans Bouscholte.

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