By Tali Sharot
Some of the most important decisions you will make in your lifetime will occur while you feel stressed and anxious. From medical decisions to financial and professional ones, we are often required to weigh up information under stressful conditions. Take for example expectant parents who need to make a series of important choices during pregnancy and labour – when many feel stressed. Do we become better or worse at processing and using information under such circumstances?
My colleague Neil Garrett, now at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute in New Jersey, and I ventured from the safety of our lab to fire stations in the state of Colorado to investigate how the mind operates under high stress. Firefighters’ workdays vary quite a bit. Some days are pretty relaxed; they’ll spend part of their time washing the truck, cleaning equipment, cooking meals and reading. Other days can be hectic, with numerous life-threatening incidents to attend to; they’ll enter burning homes to rescue trapped residents, and assist with medical emergencies. These ups and downs presented the perfect setting for an experiment on how people’s ability to use information changes when they feel under pressure.
We found that perceived threat triggered a stress reaction that made the firefighters better at processing information – but only as long as it conveyed bad news.
This is how we arrived at these results. We asked the firefighters to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different aversive events in their life, such as being involved in a car accident or becoming a victim of card fraud. We then gave them either good news (we told them that their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower than they’d thought) or bad news (that it was higher) and asked them to provide new estimates.
Research has shown that people are normally quite optimistic – they will ignore the bad news and embrace the good. This is what happened when the firefighters were relaxed; but when they were under stress, a different pattern emerged. Under these conditions, they became hyper-vigilant to any bad news we gave them, even when it had nothing to do with their job (such as learning that the likelihood of card fraud was higher than they’d thought), and altered their beliefs in response. In contrast, stress didn’t change how they responded to good news (such as learning that the likelihood of card fraud was lower than they’d thought).
Back in our lab, we observed the same pattern in undergraduates who were told they had to give a surprise public speech, which would be judged by a panel, recorded and posted online. Sure enough, their cortisol levels spiked, their heart rates went up and, lo and behold, they suddenly became better at processing unrelated, yet alarming, information about rates of disease and violence.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius