Decisions under distress: Stress profiles influence anchoring and adjustment

March 12th, 2012

The Researchers: K. S. Kassam, K. Koslov, and W. B. Mendes

Published In: Psychological Science, Vol 20(11), pp. 1394-1399, 2009


Stress is good (if you feel up to the task).


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.

Beauty connection

Negative stress wreaks havoc on your health and beauty, leading to acne, hair loss, heart problems—even wrinkles. When you’re anxious, remember that believing in your own competency can turn your negative stress into a positive. You won’t always be able to banish self-doubt, but recognizing when you’re in a defeatist mood is a great first step. 

Read More by Wendy Berry Mendes:
Anxiety Can Help Us
Why Surprises Feel Threatening
Two Shocking Causes of Creativity 
Meet the Mind: Mendes Explains the Mind-Body Connection  

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