The baby's teething, the house is a mess and your mother-in-law is coming over in ten minutes. Now might not be the best time for you and your partner to decide whether or not to buy a new house or take a new job. New research in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science suggests that stress can change how you make decisions.
It turns out, when you're feeling stressed, you tend to focus on the positive outcomes of any given situation and pay less attention to possible negative outcomes. For example, if you're under pressure to make a decision about buying a house, you might overlook the fact that it needs a lot of repair work and instead focus on the fact that it's in a great school district.
“This is sort of not what people would think right off the bat,” says Mara Mather, co-author of the study. “Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you’d think, maybe I’m going to be more focused on the negative outcomes.”
According to the study, stress may make people concentrate more on the possible reward that could result from a given situation rather than any negative results. This could explain why people who struggle with addiction have a more difficult time resisting their urges when they are under stress; the promise of the good feelings they get from giving in to the addiction outweigh any future consequences in their mind.
In addition, the study showed that stress increases the differences between the ways in which men and women tend to respond to stress. In stressful situations, men tend to take more risks, responding toward their ingrained "fight-or-flight" response. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more conservative about risk when they are under stress. They are more likely to focus on relationships and try to improve bonds in stressful situations. Men are much more likely to say yes to a risky situation, whereas women want to slow down and reassess the situation.
Moral of the story: The next time you need to make an important decision, try to do so when you can consider all aspects in a calm, relaxed environment. It could help you make better, more informed choices.