The Noggin Blog

Inside Crisis Management: How Stress Impairs Decision Making

Posted by The Brain on May 23, 2018 5:40:45 AM

Think stress clouds your judgment and impairs decision making? Sorry, but if you’re not a neuroscientist, sociologist, or psychiatrist, you don’t even know the half of it. We're not any of those things, but we thought it would be worthwhile to dig into some of the research in the field. We want to share some of the findings, because they’re of particular interest to crisis management practitioners out there.

Businessman stressed out at work in casual office

First of all, early research pointed to the fact that under stress, we fail to consider all possible options before making a final decision. So what’s the result of that? Well, our decisions end up being less systematic and more hurried than the ones we make under normal conditions. Sound familiar? In fact, we’re now learning that those early studies barely scratched the surface of how badly stress impairs decision making. But what we do know is pretty staggering; here are four definitive ways that stress impairs our decision-making capabilities: 

  1. Stress targets perception. We can’t tackle how stress impacts decision making without first reckoning with the fact that stress irrevocably affects perception. Another way to say this is the stress we feel is actually the perception of stress. Researchers call this “perceived demands” – literally, the way in which certain (work) demands lead to a situation where the “perceived demands” outweigh the resources we have to bring to bear.

    So what does this all mean? In essence, our ability to cope with stress is a factor of our interpretation of the stressful event. Stress itself doesn’t impair our judgment (we’ll talk about this next,) but it sure helps create a perceived experience of distress, or of “demand exceeding resources.”

  2. Stress compromises our judgment. The science as to whether stress worsens our individual performance is still somewhat inconclusive. But what’s increasingly clear is that stress does compromise our judgment. Researchers have seen this in the differing ways that their test subjects have responded to the same test, based on whether those subjects were stressed or not. Subjects who were more stressed, for instance, used less in-depth analysis in their problem solving.

    Other researchers have found that stress also decreases vigilance, deteriorates working memory, leads to task shedding, and finally causes us to prematurely stop evaluating alternative options. Now, that’s quite the litany.

  3. Stress is about information (or lack thereof). Having credible information is absolutely critical in crisis decision making. That’s why it’s so distressing that stress often leads us to mishandle information, or not gather the right kind of information. That has a spiraling effect on decision outcomes, as the crisis decision maker will have to make the pivotal decision based on information that might be unclear, faulty, and/or incomplete.

  4. Stress narrows our focus. Studies bear this out. When under significant time pressure (a stresser,) test subjects tend to exhibit more loss-avoiding behaviors, becoming overly cautious and inordinately risk averse.

    Sure, you can argue that loss aversion isn’t prima facie bad; loss aversion might even allow us to limit our focus to the issues “that matter.” But if we’re already basing our decision on limited information, then further narrowing our focus is definitely a bad thing. It means we’ll certainly be less likely to consider all of the options before us.

Finally, we don’t mean to suggest that decisions made in stressful conditions are doomed to failure. But crisis teams must recognize that stress means that their decisions might be constructed on a faulty, irrational decision-making structure. So to learn how you can militate against the impacts of ineffective, crisis decision making, read our Definitive Guide to Effective Crisis Decision Making.


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Topics: Crisis Management, Noggin Crisis, Critical Issues Management

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