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Anxiety’s Rose-Colored Glasses

Recent research on human decision-making in high-pressure situations has yielded some surprising results.


In a culture defined at the same time by extreme levels of stress and a surfeit of choice, it stands to reason that we might want to know something about how we make decisions under pressure.


This is exactly what researchers at the University of Southern California set out to investigate in a recent study published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Their results are a little counterintuitive.

High Stress, Half Full

Since we tend to associate anxiety with negative emotional states, we might expect stress to make us generally pessimistic about our options when the pressure’s on. But this is not what the study found. In fact, it turns out that stress has quite the opposite effect on our decision-making.

When we’re nervous about giving a speech, or worried about which college to attend, we actually focus more on how things can go right at the expense of how things can go wrong.

The folk advice of “sleeping on it,” then, might be a perfect strategy for counteracting this potentially-regretful optimism. Or, if you haven’t got the time, at least take a few deep breaths and mellow out for a couple minutes.

Read More:

  • Stress Changes How People Make Decisions (Physorg)
  • On Election Day, the Candidates Have No Monopoly on Stress (New York Times)
  • Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice (TED)
Ben Alford

Ben Alford works in Indiana Public Media's online dimension and holds an M.A. from Indiana University Bloomington's History and Philosophy of Science department. When not vegetating in front of a computer screen or geeking out over a good book, he can be found outside exploring.

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