Decision Making

Your Anxiety Contributes to Your Bad Decisions

Your Anxiety Contributes to Your Bad Decisions
Image credit: craig Cloutier | Flickr
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If you consider yourself an anxious person, beware. Your anxiety may be standing in the way of your success. A recent study from the University of California Berkeley revealed that anxiety-prone individuals are more likely to make poor decisions, especially high-stakes decisions that involved a high level of uncertainty, such as starting a business, or hiring or firing someone.

Researchers asked participants to play a game in which they would choose between two shapes – a circle or a square – and were told that one of the shapes would deliver a shock. One shape (say, the circle) would deliver a shock three out of four times, while the other (the square) would deliver a shock only one out of every four times. The key was to keep track of which shape delivered a shock most frequently, and avoid it. Occasionally, the shapes would shift roles and the square would now be the shape that delivered frequent shocks.

The result? Those who identified themselves as extremely anxious struggled to adjust to the changes in the shapes’ behaviors. Anxious people received more shocks, showing that they made poorer decisions. This was especially the case where the shapes shifted in their roles and it wasn’t clear which was the best option.

“Anxious people are worse at making decisions when things get unpredictable,” says Sonia Bishop, the study’s lead researcher. “An important skill in everyday decision-making is the ability to judge whether an unexpected bad outcome is a chance event or something likely to reoccur if the action that led to the outcome is repeated.” Anxious people have trouble making this distinction, Bishop says.

Related: Decisions, Decisions: What Separates Leaders From the Rest

The researchers also measured participants’ pupil dilation and discovered individuals who identified as being highly anxious had pupils that didn’t dilate as much as less-anxious participants – a signal to researchers that the new information wasn’t getting through. Our pupils typically dilate when we take in new information. Pupil dilation releases norepinephrine, which signals multiple brain regions to increase alertness and get ready to act. Dilation increases in volatile environments – such as when we need to make a decision where the correct outcome is unclear. Smaller pupils in those who were prone to anxiety suggested a failure to process the rapidly changing information.

So, how can anxious people make better decisions?

Seek out a second opinion.

Bishop says anxious-prone individuals can benefit from a social support network. Consider consulting experts and trusted friends so you can think through decisions before settling on a solution.

Avoid reacting immediately.

Avoid making decisions until you’ve been given ample time to reflect upon the matter.

Rely on prior experience.

Before reacting, reflect upon your prior experience. If you have an employee who has performed consistently well and then one day makes a mistake, consider whether that mistake indicates a complete shift in their behavior or whether it was an anomaly before you decide to fire them, for example.

Related: Know When to Trust Your Gut