Effects of Stress on Decisions Under Uncertainty: A Meta-Analysis

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Abstract

The purpose of the present meta-analysis was to quantify the effects that stress has on decisions made under uncertainty. We hypothesized that stress increases reward seeking and risk taking through alterations of dopamine firing rates and reduces executive control by hindering optimal prefrontal cortex functioning. In certain decision situations, increased reward seeking and risk taking is dysfunctional, whereas in others, this is not the case. We also assumed that the type of stressor plays a role. In addition, moderating variables are analyzed, such as the hormonal stress response, the time between stress onset and decisions, and the participants’ age and gender. We included studies in the meta-analysis that investigated decision making after a laboratory stress-induction versus a control condition (k = 32 datasets, N = 1829 participants). A random-effects model revealed that overall, stress conditions lead to decisions that can be described as more disadvantageous, more reward seeking, and more risk taking than nonstress conditions (d = .17). In those situations in which increased reward seeking and risk taking is disadvantageous, stress had significant effects (d = .26), whereas in other situations, no effects were observed (d = .01). Effects were observed under processive stressors (d = .19), but not under systemic ones (d = .09). Moderation analyses did not reveal any significant results. We concluded that stress deteriorates overall decision-making performance through the mechanisms proposed. The effects differ, depending on the decision situation and the type of stressor, but not on the characteristics of the individuals.

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