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Stress eliminates the optimism bias and allows us to process negative information more accurately

Posted August 8, 2018

There is something terrible most of us have to live with – stress. It is with us every step of the way and sometimes it can feel so overwhelming. Exams, work, anxiety – it is pretty much every day non-stop battle. Now scientists from UCL found that stress can actually be helpful in a way – it removes the optimism bias allowing us to process and internalise bad news better.

Stress and anxiety helps us to incorporate negative information into our decision making more accurately. Image credit: stuartpilbrow via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Naturally people are more optimistic than pessimistic – we pay more attention to what good is told to us. However, stress can remove this optimism bias, which may be a good thing, because processing negative information sometimes is necessary. Scientists found that the feeling of stress or anxiety has this effect even when the information if unrelated to the cause of the feeling itself. That is actually a good thing, because sometimes people can get misinformed by incorporating positive information exclusively into their reality. Scientists discovered that stress allows us taking bad information easier by conducting tests in a laboratory and with fire fighters in US.

A group of 35 participants was divided into two parts. One was told that they will have to deliver a public speech to a panel of judges, while another was told that they will have to write an essay. Since public speaking is one of the most common phobias, people were scared of delivering a speech. Stress levels could be assessed by measuring skin conductance, cortisol levels and including self-reported levels of anxiety. Before the speech or the essay participants were asked to estimate the risk of some threatening events, such as being a victim of domestic burglary or credit card fraud. Some overestimated the risk, while others overestimated it. Then scientists said the real risk and asked participants to assess how likely it is that these things are going to happen to them.

And so, those who were stressed took in the information and estimated the risk more accurately, while those who were more relaxed continued underestimating it. A similar experiment was conducted with fire fighters as well, the difference being that they didn’t need stress-inducing speech. The job of a fire fighter is already very stressful, which made them perfect research models, available for questioning between heavy shifts. Results confirmed that stress allows processing negative information better. Dr Neil Garrett, co-leader of the study, said: “Under threat, a stress reaction is triggered and it increases the ability to learn about hazards – which could be desirable. In contrast, in a safe environment it would be wasteful to be on high alert constantly. A certain amount of ignorance can help to keep your mind at ease”.

Stress has its function. It can motivate us to do better and prevent us from doing wrong. It is good to know that it can even have a positive impact on our decisions.


Source: UCL

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