Decisions under distress: Stress profiles influence anchoring and adjustment

Stress is bad for us, right? Well, not always. There are different types of stress, and some kinds have negative consequences—but others can help us. 

In this study, the researchers distinguished between two types of stress responses: challenge, when we believe we can handle the task at hand, and threat, when we think we can’t. When we’re in a challenge state, our hearts actually work more efficiently, and when we’re in a threat state, our systems slow down—which can make our belief in defeat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This study tested how these two states of stress influenced the ability to make decisions. Over 100 undergraduate participants gave speeches and did mock job interviews. They were met with either nodding, smiling interviewers (meant to induce a challenge state); interviewers who shook their heads, furrowed their eyebrows and crossed their arms (meant to induce a threat state); or no interviewer (control state). Those in the challenge state answered questions that required numerical estimates more accurately than those in the threat state.

If you feel stressed, have faith! It’s not the stress itself that’ll get you—it’s the belief that you’ll fail.

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