Why we make mistakes under stress

Do you find yourself doing things when you’re stressed that you come to regret later?

A 2012 study of behaviour under stress suggests that if we make decisions when we are stressed, we tend to focus on the rewards rather than the risks.

This is because acute stress affects the way our brains consider pros and cons, causing us to focus on pleasure and ignore the possible negative consequences of our decisions. Stress drives us to take action, regardless of the risks. In other words, when we get stressed, we are more likely to do things that feel good in the moment, but are bad for us in the long run.

For example, we may find it more difficult to resist eating snacks or smoking a cigarette when we are stressed, because at these moments only the pleasure associated with these activities comes to mind. Rewarding experiences (like a drug high) are remembered better, and negative consequences (like the crash afterwards) are less easily recalled.

The review also found that stress appears to affect decision-making differently in men and women. When under stress both men and women tend to focus more on rewards and less on consequences, but their responses to risk taking are different.

“What we found is that under stress, males are more likely to make risky choices and their decision strategies change so that they make their choices faster,” says Mara Mather, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California and the lead author of the review. “Whereas females under stress become more conservative and actually make their choices slower in this risky decision-making context.”

The research suggests that in stressful situations, where risk-taking can pay off, men may tend to do better, but when caution is warranted women may be more likely to succeed. The study adds further value to mixed-gender groups making decisions in companies, such as Boards and committees.

So, the next time you are stressed and have to make a decision, talk it through with someone else, particularly someone with a different attitude to risk than you, to balance out this strange quirk of our minds. Otherwise you may find yourself focussing on short-term gains, at long term cost.

Learn more about your mind in our illustrated guides, The Mind Manual and A Mind for Business, published by Hamlyn Press and Pearson/FT. And remember, you can hire Mindapples to teach staff in your organisation about handling stress better.