The Effects of Social Context and Acute Stress on Decision Making Under Uncertainty

Psychol Sci. 2015 Dec;26(12):1918-26. doi: 10.1177/0956797615605807. Epub 2015 Nov 5.


Uncertainty preferences are typically studied in neutral, nonsocial contexts. This approach, however, fails to capture the dynamic factors that influence choices under uncertainty in the real world. Our goal was twofold: to test whether uncertainty valuation is similar across social and nonsocial contexts, and to investigate the effects of acute stress on uncertainty preferences. Subjects completed matched gambling and trust games following either a control or a stress manipulation. Those who were not under stress exhibited no differences between the amount of money gambled and the amount of money entrusted to partners. In comparison, stressed subjects gambled more money but entrusted less money to partners. We further found that irrespective of stress, subjects were highly attuned to irrelevant feedback in the nonsocial, gambling context, believing that every loss led to a greater chance of winning (the gamblers' fallacy). However, when deciding to trust a stranger, control subjects behaved rationally, treating each new interaction as independent. Stress compromised this adaptive behavior, increasing sensitivity to irrelevant social feedback.

Keywords: learning; risk; social decision making; stress; trust.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Gambling
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Reward
  • Social Environment*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Trust*
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult