Your Stress Could Be Leading You To Make Bad Decisions

Unsplash/Norman Toth

You probably don’t need us to tell you that stress is a less-than-ideal aspect of daily life. But when your cortisol levels spike out of control and remain high for too long, they can actually impact your ability to make decisions… and not in a good way.

New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that when you’re chronically stressed, you’re much more likely to make higher-risk, higher-payoff decisions because of how your brain circuitry changes when dealing with cost-benefit conflicts (or weighing the pros and cons of a particular decision).

For their experiment, the researchers used data from a separate 2015 study, which was the first to identify the particular circuit in the brain responsible for making decisions that involve cost-benefit conflicts. They used those insights on a set of rats and mice they trained to run a maze that splits into two options: one that offers high-concentration chocolate milk (high payoff) alongside bright light (high risk), and one that offers weaker chocolate milk (low payoff) alongside dimmer light (low payoff).

Each test subject was subjected to a short period of stress every day for two weeks. When rodents ran the maze before experiencing their daily stress, they chose the path with weak chocolate milk and dim lighting. But when they ran the maze after experiencing their daily stress, they chose the path with concentrated chocolate milk and bright lighting — even when the researchers increased the chocolate milk concentration on the dim light side. In short, they ignored the high cost in order to reach the high reward.


While the study was completed in rodents and not humans, the same decision-making circuit exists in our brains and can be interrupted by overwhelming cortisol as well. And we can all probably attest to the fact that feeling overly stressed out has skewed our perception of a situation of some kind in the past, leading us to make the less-than-reasonable choice because we were too excitable about the potential reward.

Now, taking risks isn’t always a bad thing. Go big or go home, right? But failing to weigh pros and cons properly can lead to some pretty crippling letdowns. Think volatile financial investing, casino gambling and even quitting your job after one too many bad days without a new one lined up. So if we can prevent the interruption of the circuit in our brain that allows us to be practical about reality, we should probably do so.

All this is to say that stress is the opposite of helpful when it comes to healthy decision-making. So if you have some pretty big life changes coming up, maybe you should invest in a little R&R and self-care before diving in. Can’t say we didn’t warn you…