Friday May 20, 2022

Decision-making under stress

January 26, 2022

Contemporary life is complex, fast-paced, overloaded with decisions, and accompanied by ever-present undercurrents of stress. Decision-making in the face of unyielding and high levels of stress can be quite challenging, but it is important to navigate through the stress to make better decisions.

Decision-making is a pervasive human activity and some estimates have put the average number of daily decisions taken by an individual in tens of thousands. However, all decisions are not at the same level in terms of deliberation or difficulty. While many decisions are easy to make, others can be challenging. Important factors that shape a decision-making environment include the time that is available to take a certain decision and the severity of the possible consequences of the decision.

One way of examining decision-making processes draws on the work of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate, who has done important research in the fields of economics and psychology. Kahneman describes different systems of thinking, including a system of thinking that is effortless, quick and almost automatic, and another system that is effortful, slow and deliberative. The propensity to utilise a certain system can vary from one individual to another on account of differences in education, experience and context. This classification provides a distinction between systems of thinking and decision-making, but there is considerable debate on how these different systems interact with each other.

Stress, like decision-making, is also a phenomenon that is a given in most contemporary everyday situations, but its level varies considerably. It can even be argued that a certain minimal level of stress is a prerequisite for motivating the simplest thought and action. As the extent of stress increases, the impact of stress can go from a minimal good level to an unwieldy and unmanageable level. The higher levels of stress can detrimentally affect cognitive ability, memory and emotional control.

It is useful to note that a particular level of physical stress, assessed on the basis of physiological manifestations, can differently impact the decision-making ability in individuals based on their personality, abilities and experiences. Also, different situations may elicit a different stress response in individuals. Here again, the personalities, abilities and experiences can play a defining role. For example, the prospect of public speaking in front of a large and knowledgeable audience can be stressful for some and not at all stressful for others.

One major negative impact of a high level of unmanageable stress is that it diminishes a person’s decision-making abilities by restricting the use of rationality. Research has shown that decisions taken under stress are affected by narrow attention spans, inhibited memory, increased distraction and, therefore, weakened logic and rationality. These effects have been observed across a variety of activities related to decision-making processes, including in defining the problem, systematically considering relevant alternatives, selecting alternatives, etc.

It is important to recognise that research has shown that intuitive processes can yield decisions that are faster and possibly better in some cases, and there is evidence that supports the inclination to intuitive decision-making in the face of some high-stress situations. In situations of high stress, the tendency is for many, for various reasons, to go to more intuitive decision-making processes.

These decision-making challenges can be heightened in professions with high levels of stress. Still, there is also ample evidence that suggests that deliberate and well-reasoned decisions are better than quick and intuitive decisions and research clearly supports the value of deliberation in decision-making situations for both less-skilled individuals and experts.

Behaviours and mechanisms that can facilitate better decision-making in environments that have high levels of stress include using de-stressors, developing a better awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses, and developing clarity on values and consequences of decisions.

First, there is a need to reduce the level of stress as much as possible before making a decision. One way of doing this is to make sure that a person is not taking on unnecessary stress by focusing on things that are irrelevant. This focus on the irrelevant can be equated with ‘noise’ or distractions from the critical relevant aspects of a decision situation. Noise can divide attention and exhaust precious limited time available for decision-making. Other ways of de-stressing can include simple actions like taking a few deep breaths, changing one’s position, correcting one’s posture, etc. The process of de-stressing or stress management has a personal aspect to it, and one person’s de-stressors may be another person’s stressor.

Second, there is a need to have a clear understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. Related to this objective assessment can be the eliciting of help from those who are appropriately qualified. Also, putting together a toolbox of techniques that can be readily used to arrive at decisions in times of stress may be useful. Allied with this are the benefits of keeping an inventory of what has worked in the past, in terms of both processes and particular areas or situations. The inventory can include both personal experiences and the experience of others.

Third, it is useful to make sure that there is clarity on what is at stake in a decision situation. Uncertainty may accompany a stressful situation. Sometimes this uncertainty is by itself a reason for stress, and to handle the uncertainty there is a need to better gauge possible consequences and their likelihood. Additionally, clarity on overarching values can guide decision-making.

The reason for placing values at the centre of a decision-making process is that values essentially underpin decision choices. Examples of guiding values can include honesty, cost savings, effectiveness, etc. Reaching clarity on values can readily translate into alacrity in decision situations.

In our current complex everyday living, there is no getting away from decisions and, invariably, decision-making is accompanied by varying levels of stress. A problem arises when high levels of stress detrimentally affect the quality of decisions. To ensure better decisions, it is important to manage stress, and the ways to manage stress can include focusing on values, more accurately judging consequences, utilising experience effectively and eliciting qualified help when needed.

The writer is a policy analyst and former head of a university-based policy centre in Islamabad.