Anxiety and Decisions

October 31, 2015

We’re all forced to make many decisions on a daily basis, some more important than others. Big or small, a bad decision can lead to unpleasant and even crucial consequences.

That’s why, after we make a decision, whatever it may be, we await the consequences. These let us learn from our mistakes and apply this knowledge to the next similar situation that presents itself.

But, what happens when we make decisions under high levels of anxiety? How does this anxiety influence how we wait for the results? Or better yet, why is it that when we make a decision in an anxious state, we have a tendency of choosing the worst option?

Anxiety and decision-making

A study published in Nature Neuroscience magazine by a team of researchers from the University of California in Berkeley and the University of Oxford tried to answer these questions. This study suggests that high levels of anxiety can interfere with the decision-making process.

Anxiety and stress have a series of undesirable effects that can interfere with many types of tasks. It can even make daily tasks a real challenge. This includes the task of making decisions in a context of uncertainty.

People who experience high levels of stress and anxiety tend to focus on the negative. They even tend to think in a catastrophic way or turn small problems into huge threats.

According to the study’s authors, part of this tendency is due to the fact that highly anxious people have more difficulty reading and interpreting the environmental cues that could help them avoid negative results.

Anxiety and uncertainty

In the study, researchers worked with 31 participants with varying levels of anxiety (from minor to much higher levels). They used decision-making tasks, physiological and behavioral measurements and computer models to measure their skills in probabilistic decision-making.

These tasks require the use of logic and probability to manage situations of uncertainty and extract conclusions from past events to determine the best option.

“An important skill for daily decision-making is the ability to judge if an unexpected bad outcome is a random occurrence or if it’s something likely to happen again if the action that led up to that result repeats itself,” said Sonia Bishop, main author of the study.

The researchers also measured eye movement in order to detect pupil dilations, an indicator that the brain has released norepinephrine. This chemical helps send signals to multiple regions of the brain to increase vigilance and willingness to act.

The participants were asked to take part in a computerized game in which they had to repeatedly choose between two shapes. If a certain shape was chosen, it would give off a mild to moderate electric shock.


To avoid being surprised, the participants regularly received small electrical shocks going from lower to higher frequencies. The participants who were highly anxious had more trouble than the less anxious ones adapting to this, and they avoided the shocks.

The pupillary response to a shock was also smaller in the less anxious participants during the erratic part of the game. Usually, pupils dilate when we acquire new information and in rapidly changing environments. The researchers comment that the pupils’ reduction suggest a failure to process information that changes at great speeds.

Our findings help explain why anxious individuals can find decision making under uncertainty difficult, due to their struggle to pick up on cues regarding whether they’re in a stable or changing situation,” said Bishop.

Stable vs. unstable situations

The researchers suggest that this indicates a link between anxiety and a poor ability to make decisions.

When we’re faced with decisions in the real world, it’s important to determine if the situations and relationships involved are stable or volatile. Next, we decide how to react based on this information.

In most cases, people are good at this. But people with a tendency for high anxiety have more trouble reading environmental cues that could help them avoid bad outcomes.

The study’s results indicate a flaw in the decision-making high-level brain circuits that could eventually be the focus of future anxiety treatments.

“Our results show that anxiety could be linked to a difficulty in using information regarding if the situations we encounter daily, including relationship dynamics, are stable or not and deciding how to react,” said Bishop.

When we’re anxious we are less able to accurately anticipate and judge the likelihood of certain consequences to our actions. So, the study suggests, those who frequently feel very anxious could be more likely to make poor decisions on a regular basis.