How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases

Int J Psychophysiol. 2019 May:139:1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011. Epub 2019 Mar 1.


Deep slow breathing can increase vagal nerve activity, indexed by heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is also associated with better decision-making. This research examined the effects of two breathing patterns on HRV (Study 1) and on stress and decision-making performance (Study 2). In Study 1, 30 healthy people performed either a symmetric breathing pattern (equal ratio of inhaling/exhalation timing), a skewed pattern (exhalation longer than inhalation), or watched an emotionally neutral film (sham), following a baseline period. Both types of breathing patterns significantly increased time and frequency domain HRV parameters, while viewing the film did not. In Study 2, 56 students were randomized to perform 2 min of the skewed vagal breathing (experimental group) or to wait for 2 min (controls), before performing a 30-minute business challenging decision-making task with multiple choice answers. Stress levels were self-reported before and after the task. While controls reported elevations in stress levels, those in the experimental group did not. Importantly, participants in the experimental group provided a significantly higher percentage of correct answers than controls. These studies show that brief vagal breathing patterns reliably increase HRV and improve decision-making. Limitations, possible mechanisms and implications for business decision-making are discussed.

Keywords: Breathing patterns; Decision-making; Heart rate variability; Vagus nerve; Work stress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Electrocardiography
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Respiration*
  • Respiratory Rate / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology