Why Anxiety Can Lead to Poor Decisions

Anxious People Make Worse Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty

Anxiety illustration
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Our daily lives are full of decisions, from the important to the mundane. For each and every decision we make, we are constantly monitoring the outcomes, learning from our mistakes, and applying what we have learned to the next choice we must make. In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, a research team from the University of California - Berkeley suggests that high levels of anxiety can interfere with this process.


Anxiety obviously has a range of undesirable effects. It can make it difficult to succeed in stressful situations and in some cases it can even make performing daily tasks a challenge.

Highly anxious people also struggle to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. They tend to fixate on the negative, and even catastrophize or blow relatively minor problems up into huge, terrifying threats. Part of this tendency, suggest scientists at UC - Berkeley, is that highly anxious people have greater difficulty reading and interpreting environmental cues that might help them avoid negative outcomes.

How Anxious People React When Faced With Uncertainty

In the study led by researcher Sonia Bishop, the experimenters asked 31 participants, who had anxiety-levels ranging from low to extreme, to play a game in which they had to choose between two shapes, each of which had a number on it.

The number corresponded to the level of shock they would receive if they picked the wrong shape.

The task, known as a probabilistic decision-making task, is designed to measure how people respond to uncertainty and whether they draw on the conclusions from previous tasks to determine the best response.

"An important skill in everyday decision-making is the ability to judge whether an unexpected bad outcome is a chance event or something likely to reoccur if the action that led to the outcome is repeated," Bishop explained.

In order to avoid getting shocked, the participants needed to keep track of which shapes were most likely to deliver the electrical jolt. In the initial phase of the game, the shock-inducing shape did not change frequently. In the next phase, however, the shape that delivered the shock switched more often.

What the researchers discovered was that the highly-anxious individuals were much slower at catching on to the pattern and had a much more difficult time avoiding the shocks.

Stable Versus Unstable Situations

The researchers suggest that this indicates a link between anxiety and poor decision-making. "Their choices indicated they were worse at figuring out whether they were in a stable or erratic environment and using this to make the best choices possible," Bishop said.

When facing decisions in the real-world, it is important to determine if the situations and relationships involved are stable or volatile, and then decide how to react based on that information. In most cases, people are pretty good at this. Yet the results of this study indicate that anxiety short-circuits this process, making it more difficult to make good choices. Bishop and her colleagues also suggest that this might even contribute to the genesis or worsening of anxiety disorders.

"This difficulty in using information about the stability of action-outcome contingencies to correctly judge whether or not to repeat an action that has led to an unexpected aversive outcome may well lead high trait-anxious individuals to engage in poor decision-making," they explained. "It might also result in aversive outcomes being experienced as less predictable and less avoidable. This could in turn lead to an increase in anxiety-related symptomatology, and potentially even be involved in the onset or maintenance of anxiety disorders."

The authors of the study hope that their results might contribute to future treatments that will help people suffering from anxiety disorders, which affect approximately 40 million adults in the United States.


Anwar, Y. (2015, March 2). Anxious people more apt to make bad decisions amid uncertainty. UC Berkeley News Center. Retrieved from http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2015/03/02/anxious-people-decisions/

Browning, M., Behrens, T. E., Jocham, G., O'Reilly, J. X., and Bishop, S. J. (2015). Anxious individuals have difficulty learning the causal statistics of aversive environments. Nature Neuroscience, doi:10.1038/nn.3961.

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