A study published in Frontiers in Psychology explored risk-taking behavior among people with and without social anxiety. Under high stress, people with low social anxiety took more risks on a decision-making task, while those with high social anxiety remained cautious with or without stress. The findings shed new light on the way that stress affects people with social anxiety.
While stress and anxiety are related, the two processes are distinct. Stress results from overwhelm, when mental demands are excessively high. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to an impending threat. The two states are known to influence cognitive processing and both appear to affect decision-making when it comes to weighing risks and rewards. And yet, few studies have explored the influence of both stress and anxiety within a single decision-making task.
Researchers Kristina M. Hengen and colleagues wanted to build on previous evidence suggesting that stress increases risk-taking. The study authors sought to explore how stress affects risk-taking on a decision-making task, specifically among people with social anxiety.
The researchers recruited a sample of undergraduate students who were low in social anxiety (46 students) and high in social anxiety (41 students). About half of the students underwent a stress induction where they were told they would be asked to give a speech at the end of the experiment. Next, all students partook in a decision-making task called the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART).
During the BART, students had the opportunity to inflate a computer-simulated balloon by clicking a computer mouse, and every pump of the balloon came with a cash reward. At the same time, the risk of the balloon popping increased with every inflation. If the balloon burst, all earnings were lost and there was a chance that an angry face would additionally appear on the screen. The angry face served to elicit social threat.
The researchers analyzed the risk-taking behaviors of the respondents and found that, unsurprisingly, those with high social anxiety were generally more cautious and more risk-averse, taking longer to decide whether to inflate the balloon and inflating it to a lesser degree across the task.
However, in the absence of the speech task stressor, individuals with low and high social anxiety performed similarly on the task. Notably, it was when under stress that the low social anxiety group adjusted their behavior — responding more quickly, taking more risks, and earning more cash. The high social anxiety group, on the other hand, remained cautious whether under stress or not.
Importantly, the BART rewards participants with more cash for more risk-taking, and a functional strategy involves adapting one’s risk-taking to achieve the greatest reward. The findings suggest that while people low in social anxiety learned this strategy and increased their rewards, those high in social anxiety did not.
Hengen and team note that previous studies have suggested that stress leads people to orient their attention toward rewards over losses. Findings also suggest that anxiety affects reward sensitivity, which can lead to impaired reward processing. These findings might help explain why the students with high social anxiety showed no evidence of the adaptive strategy whereby stress increases risk-taking when riskier choices are rewarded.
The study, “Stress Makes the Difference: Social Stress and Social Anxiety in Decision-Making Under Uncertainty”, was authored by Kristina M. Hengen and Georg W. Alpers.