More coursework: 1 - A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I - J | K - L | M | N - O | P - S | T | U - Y
Effect of Stress on Decision Making
Stress must be present to ensure our very being. One may
wonder about the validity of this statement, but it is quite true. Stress plays
a vital role in the way we make decisions (Massa et al, 2002, pg 1). "Problem
solving and decision making in demanding real-world situations can be
susceptible to acute stress effects which manifest in a variety of ways
depending on the type of decision. The negative effects of an overload of acute
stress include attentional tunneling, working memory loss, and restrictions in
long term memory retrieval, with simple strategies being favoured over more
complicated ones. The underlying assumption is that stress can lead to errors,
poor performance and bad decisions. However, acute stress does not necessarily
always have a detrimental effect on decision making, rather stress may affect
the way information is processed. Some of those changes in strategy in response
to stress are in fact adaptive. They reduce and select the information being attended
to and processed, in response to high time pressure and reduced cognitive
capacity" (Flin, 2004, pg 42). Flin has said so much about stress and decision
making in this little space. To have a better understanding, we are going to
elaborate in this essay and analyze the evidence that there is an effect of
stress upon thinking and decision making ability.
Stress can be defined in many different ways, but in
relation to decision making, stress may be best defined from a scientific view
describing the thought process of the brain. When the sensory organs perceive
information, they send it to the thalamus of the brain, which deals with
Effect of stress on decision making
sensory perceptions. The information is then transmitted to the cerebral cortex
where the process of conscious thinking and decision making takes place. In
starting the process of conscious thinking, the cerebral cortex processes large
amounts of information and judges what information can be dealt with
automatically without our conscious awareness and what information must be
consciously assessed. At this point emotions, feelings, character traits, and
behavior are not part of the decision making process. Thus, the limbic system,
which is directly responsible for these emotions and feelings, is activated by
the cerebral cortex. Following the technicality of the stimulus, the stress
response begins. The stress reaction is what affects our bodies and minds from
a physical health standpoint. Thus, stress can be defined as a defensive
physiological reaction, the end result of our brain’s conscious thinking and
decision making process (Massa et al, 2002, pg 3).
Symptoms of stress with the most impact on decision
making are those which affect the process of thinking. Under great stress, the
process of thinking is characterized by loss of concentration, inability to
perceive new information, hampered short-term memory, Rumination, lack of
initial planning of actions, and hasty decision making. (Massa et al, 2002, pg
3). According to Flin (1997, pg 183), Stress can produce an impressive
catalogue of debilitating effects on decision making, performance. Typical
reported problems are narrowing of attention (tunnel vision), lack of
concentration, over reliance on heuristics and rules of thumb, and
susceptibility to decision biases.
A good definition of stress, which summarizes its
relationship with decision making, is that stress is a demand made upon the
adaptive capacities of the mind and body. The idea is if these capacities can
handle the demand and enjoy the stimulation involved, then stress is welcome
and helpful. The definition shows that stress can be both good and bad, it is
our reaction to stress that matters, and if our capacities are good we will
respond well. Thus, the effectiveness of a decision maker under stress depends
on his/her capacities (Thinking and Decision Making Under Stress (online)).
Stressors are events or situations that induce stress. It
is found that stressors for rescue personnel will vary for different types of
disaster. For military and fireground environments, the stressors for decision
makers have been shown to be time pressure, potencial threat, workload, and
environmental conditions such as noise and weather (Flin, 1997, pg 103).
Weiseath (1987) cited in Flin (2004, pg 53) highlighted
the following causes of stress for leaders of rescue personnel in crises
• Serious threat to important values and goals, life,
• Danger and fear for one’s own life;
• Strain of responsibility;
• Fear of failure-catastrophic consequences of failing to
solve the crisis;
• Having reduced ability to be effective-less control
• Rapid changes requiring continuing assessments;
• Time pressure which is not always accurate;
• Insecurity-regarding assessment of the situation and
• Little information-or information overload;
• Group pressure-and subgroups emerging.
These may not be applicable or of equal intensity to all
police commanders or every type of incident. The magnitude or quality of the
psychological and physical response to a given stressor may well be reduced by
prior exposure to that element. It should also be noted that for the incident
commander, the stress response may begin as soon as he or she is notified of
the incident, and begins to travel to the scene.
There appears to be a great deal of consistency across
reports from different professions and from military research regarding the
principal causes of stress. Backer and Orasami (1992) cited in Flin (1997, pg
103) define stressors as variables that
(i) produce a decrement in performance.
(ii) A self report of stress by the subject or
(iii) Physiological change.
The degree to which an individual becomes stressed
differs and the way in which stress is manifest for an individual differs (you
may not experience all of these symptoms). It is important to emphasise that
exposure to stressors does not necessarily produce negative effects,
particularly in personnel who have had prior exposure to these circumstances.
There may also be immediate positive effects such as increased motivation and
energy, faster reactions, clearer thinking and improved memory retrieval in
response to the stimulation of a sudden challenge from the environment.
Rescuers who feel ‘high’ in response to an emergency are experiencing the same
effect, and there may be short term positive effects on thinking skills and
energy levels (Flin, 2004, pg 50).
It is once the perceived level of challenge begins to
exceed the individual’s judged ability to cope with the stressors that the
symptoms of distress become prominent (Flin, 1997, pg 123). The critical
appraisal of demands and coping resources is based on a host of factors, such
as their previous experience, training and personality, thus resulting in
distinct individual differences in the the onset and extent of stress
reactions. Also one incident commander faced with an emergency may feel calm,
confident and totally in control, while another in the same circumstances could
be uneasy, irritable and losing grasp of the situation (Flin, 2004, pg 51).
In a police emergency manual it is stated that ‘officers
are most at risk from stress when confronting unfamiliar situations. Stress
will undermine their confidence and their performance. Inadequate communication
of information, lack of preparedness and training and lack of experience will
significantly affect stress levels. In the event of a disaster all these
conditions are even more pronounced (Flin, 1997, pg 105). However, as pointed
out Flin (1997, pg 98), a moderate degree of stress seems to have a positive
effect on the ability of the individual to function. This applies to sensory
processes, thought processes, decision making and the ability to act. The
downside is that this is an expensive state for the brain and body to maintain
and it can result in both short term and long term physical and psychological
side effects (Flin, 2004, pg 50).
Klein (1996) cited in Flin (2004, pg 42) argues that some
of those changes in strategy in response to stress are in fact adaptive. They
reduce and select the information being attended to and processed, in response
to high time pressure and reduced cognitive capacity. Acute stress is likely to
have a particularly detrimental effect on decision in the use of analytical and
creative strategies. These require extensive cognitive effort, especially
Working Memory resources which are significantly depleted under stress as
attentional capacity diverts to monitoring the threat.
However, in the modern world, we face a variety of social
and technical problems requiring the concentration and consideration of a
rational thought process. Thus, the question at hand is how you make a decision
under stressful conditions by using rational thought processes when your
natural instincts tend toward a quick and possibly irrational decision. From an
internet source (Decision making under stress (a)), the biggest difference in
decision making under stress vs. decision making without stress is irrational
vs. rational thinking. When able to make a decision under non-stress filled
conditions, one is able to think and act more rationally. A decision made under
stressful conditions is much more irrational. The stress response is aimed at
an immediate physical reaction. Thus, such activities as planning and learning
are not as important. For, under stress, the quickest physical reaction
dominates the most appropriate reaction. There are natural tendencies under
these conditions to reduce the search for and acceptance of new information, to
return to "dominant responses," to oversimplify the alternatives
available, to reduce the perceived time to make a decision, and to perceive
threat and hostility more strongly than during normal decision making.
According to Massa et al (2002, pg 7), there are many
decision making models that are established as an ideal method for making good,
rational decisions. One must learn to use these methods at all costs to make a
rational decision. One model that can be used is the rational model called the
Rational Problem Solving Model. This model has four steps, including:
1. Understand the problem
2. Devise a plan.
3. Carry out the plan
4. Look back and evaluate.
Understanding the plan consists of figuring out what is
known, unknown, what data you are using and what assumptions are being made.
Devising a plan involves looking to past experiences to find a method for a
solution. Carrying out the plan is basically what it says and then testing.
Looking back is analyzing if you could have obtained the same result through a
different method (Thompson, 2001, p.176).
In theory this type of approach should allow you to make
the ‘best’ decision, provided that you have the mental energy, unlimited time
and all the relevant information to carry out the decision analysis. But we
know from our everyday experience that when we are in a familiar situation, we
take many decision almost automatically on the basis of our experience. We do
not consciously generate and evaluate options, we simply know the right thing
to do (Flin, 2004, pg 30). This may be called intuition (Flin, 1997, pg226) but
in fact to achieve these judgments some very sophisticated mental activity is
In the last decade there has been growing interest by
applied psychologist into naturalist decision making (NDM). NDM has been
defined as "...the way people use their experience to make decisions in field
settings." In typical NDM environments (e.g. flight decks, trauma units,
warship command centres, police incident sites, control rooms and fire ground),
information comes from many sources, is often incomplete, can be ambiguous, and
is prone to rapid change. In such emergency, the incident commander and her or
his team are working in a high stress, high risk, time pressured setting and
their lives s and those affected by the emergency, (including their own rescue
personnel) may be dependent on their decisions (Flin 2004, pg 30-31). Courses
of actions are compared against the situation, not against each other. A
satisficing solution (e.g. "good enough") is the goal, rather than a best or
optimal solution (Shambach, 1996) due to time and risk constraints.
Several researchers have suggested that exposing people
to stress in training may inoculate them from the effects of stress in task
performance. Over the years, stress inoculation has grown in popularity. In
fact, several cognitive-behavioural stress-coping training programs have been
shown to be effective (Cannon-Bowers and Salas, 2000).
"Decisions, decisions. They’re at the heart of
leadership, they dominate managers’ workdays, and in law enforcement and in
military combat they often mean life or death" (Auerbach, 1999).
Considering this quote we note that commanders’ decisions are coming under
increasing scrutiny following major incidents. Although it is known that decision
making under these circumstances are done under conditions of risk, time
pressure and a dynamic environment (Flin, 2004, pg 29)-We have two cases
(knightly, Rigby) where police commanders have taken decisions "in the heat of
the moment" and found to have been negligent and one (Hughes) where the
circumstances of the critical decision were such that negligence was not
accepted. There is no general ruling and such claims will be dealt with on a
case by case basis. The contributory stress factor on commanders today is that
there is a new emphasis on the commander’s responsibilities for the health and
safety of subordinates deployed at an incident. The need for commanders to take
a serious approach to risk assessment and risk management is becoming very clear
(Flin, 1997, pg 221-222).
Stress is detrimental to rational decision making
processes if one does no take appropriate measures to prevent this from
happening. Many people experience stress on a daily basis. It is very important
for people in occupations that require split second, life and death decisions
to make them rationally and to take the necessary steps to do so. These steps
consist of appropriate training and conditioning oneself to make rational
choices when under stress or stressful conditions.
• Why study the effects of stress?
Understanding how decision making under stress differs
from "normal" decision making is crucial to developing systems with
better decision making. While culture plays some role in decision making and
both experience and training can be used to reduce the natural effects of
stress, all human beings will alter their behavior in predictable ways when
they perceive extraordinary pressures. There are natural tendencies to reduce
the perceived time to make a decision, and to perceive threat and hostility
more strongly than during normal decision making. Moreover, the strategic use
of uncertainty and ambiguity as well as selected bargaining tactics can be
expected to increase or decrease perceived threat.
Decision Making Under Stress
Training includes changing our attitudes towards
stressors and training of certain patterns of behavior. As mentioned before,
stress is a defensive physiological reaction. Since our body has a universal
protective mechanism, we must try to develop a universal physical reaction
through training. The idea is to prevent panic in a stressful situation to
achieve the best possible thought process and outcome. Ultimately a way of
rational behavior can become a habit allowing one to eventually forget about
Over time, a rational way of thinking and behaving
becomes habit taking the place of frustration. The ultimate goal is to
strengthen the processes of perceiving new information and planning of one’s
actions in the face of stressors.
Another key idea of changing our attitude is dealing with
preparation. The greatest source of panic is the thought of not being prepared
enough. Yet, one still tries to perform to perfection when perfection is out of
reach due to not being fully prepared. One must realize that under stress you
have to do what is necessary and only that instead of thinking what you could
have done had you been better prepared. Preparation is also part of the second
strategy of training.
The second strategy of training relies on the forming of
certain patterns of behavior. These patterns of behavior must be more specific
than general. A modifying of a universal psychical response would require hard
training and still most likely be thrown aside in the face of stress for a
panic filled response. Thus, if the intent is to develop a set of reactions,
the chance of them working is greater with more specificity
A good example is law enforcement. Policemen will always
feel stress in the moment of catching an armed criminal, no matter how
experienced, skilled, or intrepid he/she is. However, he/she will not forget
how to shoot, what grasp to apply, and how to put handcuffs on the criminal.
These are skills that have been developed as automated responses for a specific
kind of stress which are still effective even under severe stress
A second example of such skills can be found in
firefighters. It has been found that firefighters have learned how to recognize
signals in their environment, and they have learned how to work safely in their
dynamic environment. There are several operational procedures which have been
assembled to ensure firefighters return home safely. These are procedures that
can be followed with conditioned responses by the firefighters much like the
same governing procedures that allow policeman to act under conditioned
response. As mentioned earlier, when stress is present, memory is impaired and
the inability to recognize the situation occurs, which is a violation of the
RPD model. The struggle for firefighters is when faced with a decision to
engage or disengage from their location in a highly dynamic environment under
extreme stress. This is not a conditioned response. Tactical fireline decisions
can only be framed in the context of each firefighters own unique experiences.
So what must firefighters do to combat stress in those decision making
Like with the police departments, firefighters have gone
under more extensive training to better understand how to treat a new
situation. Firefighters are taught to examine each new situation with respect
to past situations that they mentally simulate in their minds. Each new
firefighter has a safety conscious mentor who helps the new firefighter along
the way as he/she gathers experiences to store as mental data. It is only through
a managing of these experiences that firefighters are eventually able to act
rationally in the face of stress when making that decision to engage or
Auberbach, A. (1999). "Making Decisions Under
Stress: Implications for Individual and Team Training." Personnel
Psychology (52) (4), 1050-1053. Available from:
Beatty, (1999) Available from:
Cannon-Bowers, Janis, A. & Salas, Edwards (1998).
Making Decisions Under Stress. Washington: American Psychological Association.
"Changing Our Attitude Toward Stressors". Available from:
"Decision Making Under Stress" (a). Available from:
"Decision Making Under Stress" (b). Available from:
Flin, R. (2004). Crisis and Disaster Management. Distance
Learning Manual. University of Portsmouth.
Flin, R. (1997). Sitting in the Hot Seat. Leaders and
teams for Critical Incident Management.
Klein, G. (1998).Sources of Power How People Make
Decisions. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Massa, P., Watkins, C., Partridge, B (2002). Decision
Making Under Stress. Available from: http://web.umr.edu/~bpart/eman313/DMUS.htm
Walker, K., Nayda, I.T., Turner, J. (2003b) Make-Up Your
Mind -- Improving Your Decision-Making Skills. Available from: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/
"Thinking and Decision Making Under Stress". Avalaible
Shambach, A. (1996) Strategic Leadership Workshop:
"Strategic Decision-making in the Information Age," U.S Army War
College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania
Thompson, Leigh, L. (2001). The Mind and Heart of the
Negotiator, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
Walker, K., Torres, N.I and Turner, J. (2003a): Make-Up
Your Mind: Improving Your Decision-Making Skills: Institute of Food and Agricultural
Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville. Available from: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/HE691