Stress compromises your judgement: Study shows it often leads to risky decisions

Stress can compromise your decisions. A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified the area in the brain that is responsible for bad decision making as it becomes impaired under stress.

The study was derived from another analysis carried out by the same team in 2015. They discovered that the brain circuit that plays a role in the cost-benefit conflict starts in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for mood management, and continues into striosomes, which are groups of neurons situated in the striatum, an area linked with habit formation, motivation, and reward reinforcement. In this previous study, they trained mice to go through a maze in which they had to pick either a highly concentrated chocolate milk, which they liked, along with bright light, which they did not like; or a weaker drink but a dimmer light. They blocked the connection between cortical neurons and striosomes with the use of optogenetics and discovered that they could alter the rats’ choice for lower-risk, lower-payoff choices to bigger payoffs despite their bigger costs.

In the current research, instead of using optogenetics, they exposed the mice to a short period of stress daily in a span of two weeks. Results showed that prior to stress, normal rats and mice would opt to run toward the maze toward the maze arm with dimmer light and weaker drink about half the time. Then, they slowly increased the chocolate milk concentration in the dimmer side. With this, the mice started to pick that side more often. Yet, when the subjects were chronically stressed, they continued to opt for the side with the bright light and better chocolate milk even if the drink concentration on the dimmer side was greatly increased. The findings were the same in the previous study.

Alexander Friedman, one of the researchers, said that the animal ignores the high cost and chooses the high reward. They believe that this circuit merges information on the positive and negative aspects of the options, which help the brain to come up with a decision.

“Somehow this prior exposure to chronic stress controls the integration of good and bad. It’s as though the animals had lost their ability to balance excitation and inhibition in order to settle on reasonable behavior,” explained senior author Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

They also found that the change lasts for month, but they were also able to restore normal decision making in stressed mice using optogenetics. This indicates that the prefronto-striosome circuit stays unimpaired after chronic stress and could possibly be manipulated to bring back normal behavior in human patients whose disorders cause poor decision making.

Ways on how to make better decisions

There are ways on how you can come up with better decisions, according to an article by the

  • Remove yourself from the situation and think about a conflict from a third-perspective. Think about the perspective of others, consider different ways the situations could happen, and think about compromises.

  • Practice mindfulness meditation to reduce negative emotion. (Related: Mindfulness meditation improves decision-making skills.)

  • Develop emotional intelligence by identifying and managing emotion.

  • Consider the environment as lighting may affect a person’s emotions, whether positive or negative.

  • Do not make rash decisions. This will help you focus on the most relevant information.

Read more stories on stress and its effects at

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