When circumstances change rapidly and information is difficult to verify, it is not easy to gather one’s thoughts. Due to stress, a person can lose control and either act impulsively, or “freeze” and do nothing. We understand how stress affects decision making and how to take an important step in a situation of uncertainty.

How stress affects decision making

Stress is an adaptive function of the body, which manifests itself as an acute reaction to the need for change. Under stress, people’s ability to think critically is often diminished and all possibilities are simplified to the extremes of “all or nothing”.

Some people in a difficult situation fall into a stupor, slow down, are afraid to make any decision. They experience “decision inertia”: all options seem bad. With this type of stress response, a person may constantly double-check information, hoping that it will help make a choice. However, this is only a way to postpone the crucial moment of decision making.

The other part of people under stress, on the contrary, will act imprudently, quickly and impulsively. They may show the opposite reaction – “cognitive tunneling”. Focusing on the decision facing them, people may not notice important information, irrationally assess their strengths and capabilities.

How uncertainty affects decision making

When making decisions related to risk, it is necessary to determine the desired results, the possibilities for their implementation and the consequences. For example, this may concern the construction of a house in a seismically active zone. It is clear that there is a risk. But it is also clear what exactly can happen and how it can be avoided or the negative consequences can be reduced.

This approach does not work for situations characterized by uncertainty. After all, it is impossible to determine the possible results, nor to calculate the probability of their implementation. Uncertainty is very different from risk, and risk management models become ineffective. Uncertainty prevents us from understanding what is happening and what the consequences might be.

In addition, uncertainty itself can be a stressor and cause fear and panic in people.

How to make decisions under stress and uncertainty

  • Try to calm down as much as possible. Stress can cause the amygdala, the region of the brain that regulates emotions, to work overtime. It will begin to interfere with the activity of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for critical thinking. To avoid extremes in the form of impulsivity and inaction, you need to try to stabilize the emotional state.
  • Think more about the goal, rather than how to achieve it and all sorts of alternatives. Decide what you really need right now: move to a safe place, find a new job, provide yourself with medical supplies, etc. This will help you not to be torn between several tasks at the same time, plunging yourself into a panic even more. It will also help avoid the trap of comparing options for which there is not enough information.

  • Consult different people. Uncertain situations are inherently ambiguous and ambiguous. Discuss your situation with people you trust. Well, if it will be people with different views on what is happening. This allows you to get a more complete picture. In addition, the very act of saying your plan out loud to another person will allow you to look at it differently.

  • Check information. Do not rely on unconfirmed data, critically reflect on the experience of friends and relatives.

  • Don’t put off making a decision until more information is available unless you know what you’re expecting. Wanting more data is a good thing. But waiting and collecting more data comes with a cost—the lack of a solution. Especially if this information concerns global processes that you cannot influence. It makes sense, for example, to wait for information from your employer about whether he can pay you a salary if you move. But the desire to check the data ten times over and delay making a decision until more positive news can be a form of procrastination and a response to stress.

  • Make reversible decisions. In an emergency, there is a risk that you will make an emotional and ill-conceived decision. Think of several options so that when you receive new information, you can change the trajectory of your decision.