Stress can make you more likely to base decisions on short-term, instead of long-term, consequences.
Sometimes in our lives we are forced to make choices that have good immediate consequences but bad long-term consequences. For example, if you continuously stay up late to work on projects at the last minute you finish the projects on time (a good immediate consequence) but suffer from sleep deprivation over time (a bad long-term consequence). Or you may sit in an uncomfortable chair at work all day and avoid taking stretch breaks to get more work done, only to feel very stiff and sore at the end of the week. When under stress are we more likely to make decisions based on their immediate or long-term consequences? A researcher from Harvard University explored how stress affects the way people make decisions with positive short-term but negative long-term consequences.
What was the research about?
Across two studies, 32 Harvard University students viewed a slide show that they controlled. To simulate a sense of stress and negative emotion, some participants viewed very aversive pictures during the slide show. Other participants only saw neutral pictures during the slide show. Participants were told they would receive a certain amount of money for each slide they viewed during the 10-minute slide show. Thus the more slides they advanced through the more money they would make. Participants advanced to the next slide by pushing one of two buttons on a control box. One button represented “good immediate but bad long-term consequences” because it allowed participants to quickly advance the next slide, but it also slowed down the advance of later slides. The other button represented “bad immediate but good long-term consequences” because it slowed down the advance of the next slide but sped up the advance of later slides. Results showed that participants who were stressed by viewing the aversive slides, earned less money than participants who viewed the neutral slides. The stressed participant’s also chose the “good immediate but bad long-term consequences” button on the control box much more than the non-stressed participants. The second study found the same results comparing a group of students who reported high stress levels because of upcoming exams to a group who had low stress levels.
Why should it matter to me?
We all get stressed at times and may make decisions we end up regretting down the road. To help avoid making these kinds of decisions under stress, people need to take time to think through the long-term consequences of their choices instead of exclusively focusing on short-term consequences. This may help reduce stress levels in the long run, even if it does not immediately impact them.
Source: Gray, J. (1999) A bias toward short-term thinking in threat-related negative emotional states. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 65-75.