Stress Makes Us Optimistic

Stressors cause people to weight positive outcomes heavier in decision making

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) If you know you need to weigh your options before making an upcoming decision, the best time to do so is when you’re feeling stress-free.

Although most people associate stress with negativity, researchers discover it causes people to look on the bright side when making decisions.

Two University of Southern California researchers unveil that stress alters one’s perception of risk and reward in a way that inclines the stressor to be more optimistic when thinking about potential outcomes.

"Make important decisions with a calm, clear mind."

"This is sort of not what people would think right off the bat," expresses Mara Mather, Ph.D., co-author with Nichole Lighthall, Ph.D. "Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you'd think, maybe I'm going to be more focused on the negative outcomes."

Yet in reality – under stress, people discount the bad and focus on the good.

The researchers call this effect the “STARS” model for “stress triggers additional reward salience,” and starts off explaining a study in which painful stressors were used on health young adults while measuring their dopamine level—a key factor in reward-driven behavior. As expected, when stress was introduced, dopamine levels increased.

Researchers explain this may be key in understanding the decision-making of substance abusers for when stress is introduced, the positive impact of the drugs or alcohol would likely be weighed heavier than their negating tendencies.

Their review also included studies of people in situations known to cause stress—such as public speaking or having their hand emerged in ice water—and then gave them visual cues and asked for either positive or negative feedback. “In both studies, stress led to relatively better learning from positive feedback and worse learning from negative feedback,” authors write.

“Of additional interest, both studies found that the effects of stress on reinforcement learning were similar for males and females.” And though this may not seem additionally interesting, it is when all facts are considered.

This review further uncovered that men and women differ in their risky decision-making, despite similarities of thought.

A balloon popping activity let male and female participants inflate a virtual balloon for points. The bigger it got, the higher the score, yet stronger the possibility of explosion. Twenty minutes before starting the task, half the group experienced a cold stressor.

The authors explain, “ Experiencing a cold stressor  before the game led males to increase risk taking (more pumps per balloon) in pursuit of greater reward, whereas stress effects were opposite for female.”

These results indicate clear changes in the decision-making process under conditions of stress, and in order to combat our body’s reactions, its best to make decisions when feeling cool, calm, and collected.

This study is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science and reports no conflicts of interest “with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.”

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 29, 2012
Last Updated:
March 1, 2012