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Anxious Folks Struggle with Decisions In Face of Uncertainty

Anxious Folks Struggle with Decisions In Face of Uncertainty

New research finds that highly anxious people have more trouble deciding how best to handle life’s uncertainties.

Experts say the anxiety can lead to off-based or unfounded beliefs. For example, individuals may interpret a lovers’ tiff as a doomed relationship or a workplace change as a career threat.

The behavior is especially problematic when individuals are faced with uncertainty. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Oxford found that people prone to high anxiety have a tougher time reading the environmental cues that could help them avoid a bad outcome.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, hint at a glitch in the brain’s higher-order decision-making circuitry. Researchers believe that this “flaw” could eventually be targeted in the treatment of anxiety disorders, which affect some 40 million American adults.

“Our results show that anxiety may be linked to difficulty in using information about whether the situations we face daily, including relationship dynamics, are stable or not, and deciding how to react,” said study lead author Dr. Sonia Bishop, an assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley.

“It’s a bit like being Alice in Wonderland, trying to work out if the same rules apply or if everything is different and if so, what choices you should make,” she added.

For example, a friend may suddenly lash out for no discernible reason. That friend’s behavior could reflect a typical variation in their day-to-day mood or interactions or, more dramatically, an underlying change in their relationship with you.

The challenge for a person prone to anxiety is assessing the situation in context of what else has happened recently and responding appropriately.

Bishop and fellow researchers used decision-making tasks, behavioral and physiological measurements, and computational models to gauge the probabilistic decision-making skills of 31 young and middle-aged adults whose baseline anxiety levels ranged from low to extreme.

Probabilistic decision-making requires using logic and probability to handle uncertain situations, drawing conclusions from past events to determine the best choice.

“An important skill in everyday decision-making is the ability to judge whether an unexpected bad outcome is a chance event or something likely to reoccur if the action that led to the outcome is repeated,” Bishop said.

The researchers’ measures also included eye-tracking to detect pupil dilation, an indicator that the brain has released norepinephrine, which helps send signals to multiple brain regions to increase alertness and readiness to act.

Participants were asked to play a computerized “two-armed bandit-style” game in which they repeatedly chose between two shapes, one of which, if selected, would deliver a mild to moderate electrical shock.

To avoid getting shocked, participants needed to keep track of the shape that most frequently delivered electrical jolts.

During one part of the game, the shock-delivering shape did not change for a long stretch of time. However, during another part of the game, it changed more frequently.

Highly anxious people had more trouble than their less anxious counterparts adjusting to this and thus avoiding shocks.

“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,” Bishop said.

Also weaker in highly anxious participants was their pupil response to receiving a shock (or not) during the erratic phase of the game.

Typically, our pupils dilate when we take in new information, and this dilation increases in volatile environments. Smaller pupils suggested a failure to process the rapidly changing information that was more prevalent during the erratic phase of the game.

“Our findings help explain why anxious individuals may find decision-making under uncertainty hard as they struggle to pick up on clues as to whether they are in a stable or changing situation,” Bishop said.

Source: University of California, Berkeley

Anxious Folks Struggle with Decisions In Face of Uncertainty

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2015). Anxious Folks Struggle with Decisions In Face of Uncertainty. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2015/03/03/anxious-folks-struggle-with-decisions-in-face-of-uncertainty/81868.html

 

Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Oct 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.