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Mental & Emotional Health

Anxious People Apt to Make Bad Decisions

Highly anxious people have more trouble deciding how best to handle life’s uncertainties. They may even catastrophize, interpreting, say, a lovers’ tiff as a doomed relationship or a workplace change as a career threat. That’s the finding of research done at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Oxford and published March 2nd 2015 in the journal Nature Neuroscience,

A release from UC Berkeley reports that in gauging people’s response to unpredictability, the team found that people prone to high anxiety have a tougher time reading the environmental cues that could help them avoid a bad outcome. The discovery hints at a glitch in the brain’s higher-order decision-making circuitry that could eventually be targeted in the treatment of anxiety disorders, which affect some 40 million American adults.

The release quotes lead author and principal investigator Sonia Bishop, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, as saying, “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. 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.”

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 the 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.

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