Decision making under stress: a selective review

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2012 Apr;36(4):1228-48. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.02.003. Epub 2012 Feb 10.


Many decisions must be made under stress, and many decision situations elicit stress responses themselves. Thus, stress and decision making are intricately connected, not only on the behavioral level, but also on the neural level, i.e., the brain regions that underlie intact decision making are regions that are sensitive to stress-induced changes. The purpose of this review is to summarize the findings from studies that investigated the impact of stress on decision making. The review includes those studies that examined decision making under stress in humans and were published between 1985 and October 2011. The reviewed studies were found using PubMed and PsycInfo searches. The review focuses on studies that have examined the influence of acutely induced laboratory stress on decision making and that measured both decision-making performance and stress responses. Additionally, some studies that investigated decision making under naturally occurring stress levels and decision-making abilities in patients who suffer from stress-related disorders are described. The results from the studies that were included in the review support the assumption that stress affects decision making. If stress confers an advantage or disadvantage in terms of outcome depends on the specific task or situation. The results also emphasize the role of mediating and moderating variables. The results are discussed with respect to underlying psychological and neural mechanisms, implications for everyday decision making and future research directions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Depression / psychology
  • Feedback, Psychological
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Punishment
  • Reward
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*