In a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers compared the behavior of volunteers experiencing stress.
The study results offer some insight into how stress affects a person's ability to break old habits.
"Accomplishing your goals will reduce stress."
Cognition psychologists at the Ruhr-Universität in Germany, Dr. Lars Schwabe, PhD, and Dr. Oliver Wolf designed the study to look at how stress might affect someone’s ability to make goal-oriented decisions.
The researchers created a stress reaction in the body using drugs. They then monitored brain functioning using MRI scanning.
For this study, 69 volunteers were recruited. The participants were taught to punch in a specific series of symbols on the computer in order to receive one of two rewards. The rewards were either orange juice or cocoa.
The researchers then caused drug-induced stress in some of the volunteers. The researchers believed that the stress in the body would weaken the participant's ability to choose symbols based on their goals.
When the participants returned to their computers, the ones experiencing the drug-induced stress were more likely to repeat the series of symbols they had done before, whether they got the reward they wanted or not.
Those not experiencing stress were better able to choose which pattern of symbols they entered in order to receive the reward they wanted.
A study of the brain images showed that the drug-induced stress caused the parts of the brain responsible for goal-directed behavior to be weaker than the parts of the brain that are responsible for habitual behavior.
The information from the MRI supported the researchers ideas. The people who were stressed were more likely to fall back on habits.
The non-stressed people were more likely to make choices based on their goals.
The study was published in the July issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. Information regarding conflicts of interest was unavailable.