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Monday, March 12, 2012

Risk and Reward Are Processed Differently in Decisions Made Under Stress

By Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall
Current Directions in Psychological Science
February 2012, vol. 21, no. 1, pp 36-41.


Years of research have shown that stress influences cognition. Most of this research has focused on how stress affects memory and the hippocampus. However, stress also affects other regions involved in cognitive and emotional processing, including the prefrontal cortex, striatum, and insula. New research examining the impact of stress on decision processes reveals two consistent findings. First, acute stress enhances selection of previously rewarding outcomes but impairs avoidance of previously negative outcomes, possibly due to stress-induced changes in dopamine in reward-processing brain regions. Second, stress amplifies gender differences in strategies used during risky decisions, as males take more risk and females take less risk under stress. These gender differences in behavior are associated with differences in activity in the insula and dorsal striatum, brain regions involved in computing risk and preparing to take action.

Beginning of the article:

The word stress describes experiences that are emotionally or physiologically challenging (McEwen, 2007). Stressful experiences elicit sympathetic-nervous-system responses and stimulate the release of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol in humans; Sapolsky, 2004) that mobilize the body's resources to respond to a challenge. The physiological effects of a stressful experience such as making a speech are evident not only during the event, but also in the next hour or so (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004). When stressors are constantly present or anxiety about potential stressors is high, stress levels may become chronically elevated. Beyond the physiological effects of stress, a substantial literature indicates that both acute and chronic stress affect cognitive function.

Until recently, most studies examining stress and cognition have focused on stress effects on memory; effects on other aspects of cognition, including decision making, have received less attention. However, it is crucial to understand whether and how stress may alter decision making, as important decisions are often made under stress. For example, decisions about finances, health care, and social relationships are frequently accompanied by stress or cause stress. Early work on stress and decision making determined that stressors like time pressure and noise impaired decision making, resulting in decision making that is hurried, unsystematic, and lacking full consideration of options (Janis & Mann, 1977).

More recent work focuses on how stress influences how people respond to the risks and rewards of decisions. Acute stress potentiates dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain (Ungless, Argilli, & Bonci, 2010), which may intensify the allure of potential gains associated with decision options. The core brain-body feedback loops involved in the stress response also are involved in assessing risk and reward (Bechara & Damasio, 2005). As part of this brain-body feedback system, the insula helps represent somatic states and signals the probability of aversive outcomes during risky decisions (Clark et al., 2008). Both physical and psychological stress activate the insula, but differently for males and females (Naliboff et al., 2003; Wang et al., 2007).

In the following sections, we review recent evidence for two distinct effects of stress. First, stress enhances learning about positive choice outcomes and impairs learning about negative choice outcomes. This effect appears to be similar across gender and age groups. Second, stress affects decision strategies differently for males and females, with behavior diverging under stress when decision making involves immediate risk taking.


This article is pertinent to ethical decision-making while experiencing stress and anxiety.

Special thanks to Ken Pope for this information.