Reduced risk-taking behavior as a trait feature of anxiety

Emotion. 2012 Dec;12(6):1373-83. doi: 10.1037/a0029119. Epub 2012 Jul 9.


Affect can have a significant influence on decision-making processes and subsequent choice. One particularly relevant type of negative affect is anxiety, which serves to enhance responses to threatening stimuli or situations. In its exaggerated form, it can lead to psychiatric disorders, with detrimental consequences for quality of life, including the ability to make choices. This study investigated, for the first time, how pathological anxiety affects risk-taking behavior. In this study, 20 anxious participants meeting Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, criteria for either generalized anxiety disorder (n = 10) and for panic attack disorder (n = 10), as well as 20 matched nonanxious controls, performed a gambling task. To investigate the tendency toward either a risk-seeking or a risk-averse behavior, we employed a task that did not allow for learning from outcomes. Anxious participants made significantly fewer risky choices than matched nonanxious participants. Specifically, they become risk-avoidant after gains. Moreover, anxious participants not only were less happy after gains but were also less sad after losses, and they also evinced less desire to change their choices after losses than did nonanxious participants. Importantly, whereas the desire to switch choice was followed by actual choice switch for all participants, happiness directly predicted subsequent risky choices, particularly in the nonanxious participants. Further analyses revealed that the anxious participants' risk-avoidance behavior was independent of different types of anxiety disorder (panic attack disorder and generalized anxiety disorder) as well as of the effects of psychotropic drugs treatment. This study demonstrates a specific role for anxiety in individual decision making. In particular, hypersensitivity to potential threats and pessimistic evaluation of future events reduced risk-taking behavior.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety Disorders / drug therapy
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gambling / psychology
  • Happiness
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Panic Disorder / drug therapy
  • Panic Disorder / physiopathology
  • Risk-Taking*