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Effect of Stress on Decision Making

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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 situations:
• Serious threat to important values and goals, life, health, environment;
• 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 over consequences;
• Rapid changes requiring continuing assessments;
• Time pressure which is not always accurate;
• Insecurity-regarding assessment of the situation and solutions;
• 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 taking place.

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.
http://web.umr.edu/~bpart/eman313/stress1.htm

Decision Making Under Stress
Phil Massa
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 frustration.

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 (http://library.thinkquest.org/C0123421/attitude.htm).
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 (http://library.thinkquest.org/C0123421/thinking.htm).

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 situations?

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 disengage (http://energt,sebate,giv/hearings/107-1/forests/thirtymile_fire/gleason.htm).

Bibliography
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http://web.umr.edu/~bpart/eman313/DMUS.htm [accessed 15/05/04]

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Cannon-Bowers, Janis, A. & Salas, Edwards (1998). Making Decisions Under Stress. Washington: American Psychological Association.

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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 [accessed 16/05/05]

Walker, K., Nayda, I.T., Turner, J. (2003b) Make-Up Your Mind -- Improving Your Decision-Making Skills. Available from: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ [accessed 16/05/04]

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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 [accessed 18/05/04]



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