How Anxiety Affects Your Decision-Making Skills

New research points to the connection between bad choices and anxious personalities.

How Anxiety Affects Your Decision-Making Skills
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The last three times your boss called you into his office, it was to praise your work and give you new responsibilities. But today, her disapproval makes it feel like she’s considering firing you. How does her next meeting request make you feel?


Or what about those final-round candidates you’re considering hiring–if the last two people you brought onboard were duds, will you go with the safe bet or the risky one?

Related:How Misplaced Anxiety Affects Your Decision-Making

If you’re anxiety-prone, the choices you make in the future may be skewed by past burns–and science backs those nerves up. Anxious people are more prone to making bad decisions, according to research out this week from UC Berkeley.

In a study meant to gauge “probabalistic decision-making skills”–the ability to use past events to make future choices–researchers asked participants to choose between two shapes in a game. One of the shapes would deliver a shock; the key was in keeping track of which shape most frequently shocked them, and avoiding it. Sometimes the shape wouldn’t shock them for long stretches. Sometimes it would zap them frequently, without warning.

Those who identified as “extremely anxious” at baseline struggled with adjusting to the changes. Their pupils also didn’t dilate as efficiently as the less-anxious participants, a signal that new information wasn’t getting through.

“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,” lead researcher Sonia Bishop said in a press release. The hope is that these findings are clues into our brain wiring that might advance treatment for the 40 million anxiety-disorder sufferers in the U.S. In the meantime, here’s how you can manage better decisions despite anxiety.


Be aware of what’s happening. Ask yourself, “What’s causing me to feel this way?” advises Jeremy Yip, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

Make it positive. If you’re feeling anxious about something specific, like a job interview or big decision, think of the butterflies as excitement. Focus on the positive side, and remember that nerves mean you’re encountering something new and important, rather than difficult or overwhelming.

View it as a good thing–in mild doses. Anxiety disorders are a different story–they can be debilitating. But mild cases of anxiety might make you a better leader, says Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic. “Too little anxiety, and you will not perform at your peak. . . . Too much anxiety, and you will not perform well,” he told Fast Company. “But with just the right amount of anxiety, enough to elevate your physiological arousal and to focus your attention intensely on the task . . . you’ll be more likely to deliver a peak performance.”

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.