Decision-making under stress

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We already looked at the domains of information processing, cognitive load, and the effect of cognitive fatigue on performance. Stress is a huge factor involved in these processes and therefore we would like to dive a bit deeper into the term stress and how it influences decision-making.

Psychological stress is becoming a big global issue. We can think about several disciplines in which stress is a negative factor. It lowers the performance of employees, it lowers the performance of athletes, and together with this, it also raises the costs of healthcare.

But what is stress in general and how does it influence performance and decision making? Hans Selye who first described stress stated it is a “nonspecific response of the body to any demand”. Today we see stress as a response to change, threat, or pressure coming from outside or inside our bodies. Stress is needed to regain homeostasis of the body and is used in for example fight and flight reactions. However, chronic stress and stress during the wrong situations cause maladaptation which can result in depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment.

In life, many decisions are made in situations where stress is involved. Think about that striker again that is heading towards the box in the 91st minute of a world-cup game when the score is still 0-0. But also think about yourself, who was making tests in high school or the financial controller that has to make a decision which can cause a company to lose a lot of money. In a normal situation, individuals make decisions by calculating the risk and profit associated with each choice. These calculations are based upon executive functioning, including processes such as planning, categorization, and working memory. However, it is found that in some situations these decisions are made based on a non-rational matter rather than the strategic matter. Specifically when the consequences of a decision are implicit or when the information cannot be processed by an individual, a decision is not based on a strategic manner. In these situations, the intuitive system plays a more prominent role in decision-making. Stress influences the areas in the brain that are used for decision-making and thereby alters decision-making. High stress can cause individuals to make decisions even before they evaluated all potential outcomes. This can result in making risky decisions.

Therefore stress has to be tackled and the best way to do that is in a task-specific manner. This means we have to make individuals and groups emotionally resilient to the specific situations in which they experience impaired decision-making. Aristotle Cognitive Training makes a tool by which task-specific cognitive training can be given to improve the emotional resilience of among other things athletes, employees, or patients.


  • Barach, A. (2017). Stress and resiliency – Part 1: A Physiological Point of View. Mental Health Resources, O’Connor Professional Group.
  • Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., Ayers, D. (last updated: October, 2020). Physiology, Stress reaction. StatPearls.
  • Starcke, K., Brand, M. (2012). Decision making under stress: A selective review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 26: 1228-1248.
  • Tan, S.Y., Yip, A. (2018). Hans Selye (1907-1982): Founder of the stress theory. Singapore Medicine Journal. 59(4): 170-171.

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