Stress and decision making: A few minutes make all the difference

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Stress has been shown to impair decision making. However the temporal development of this phenomenon remains poorly understood. We speculated that the rapid stress induced increase in norepinephrine and the delayed increase in cortisol might exert opposing effects on decision making under risk. Therefore, three different experimental groups underwent the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and performed the Game of Dice Task (GDT) at different time points in relation to the stressor, which lasted approximately 18 min. The first group performed the GDT 5 min after stress onset, the second and third group performed the GDT either 18 or 28 min after TSST onset. Decision-making performance of the control group was measured after a respective resting time. Results confirmed a rapid activation of the sympathetic nervous system and a somewhat slower response of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. In the GDT an improvement of decision-making performance in the 5 and 18 min stress groups compared to controls and the 28 min stress group occurred. Descriptively, decision making of the 28 min after stress group was more risky than decision making of the control group. Our findings are in line with the idea that a moderate increase in catecholamines enhances decision-making performance, while elevated cortisol concentrations may negatively affect decision making presumably via rapid nongenomic mechanisms.

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