Stress Makes the Difference: Social Stress and Social Anxiety in Decision-Making Under Uncertainty

Stress and anxiety can both influence risk-taking in decision-making. While stress typically increases risk-taking, anxiety often leads to risk-averse choices. Few studies have examined both stress and anxiety in a single paradigm to assess risk-averse choices. We therefore set out to examine emotional decision-making under stress in socially anxious participants. In our study, individuals (N = 87) high or low in social anxiety completed an expanded variation of the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART). While inflating a balloon to a larger degree is rewarded, a possible explosion leads to (a) a loss of money and (b) it is followed by an emotional picture (i.e., a calm vs. an angry face). To induce stress before this task, participants were told that they would have to deliver a speech. We operationalized risk-taking by the number of pumps during inflation and its functionality by the amount of monetary gain. In addition, response times were recorded as an index of decisional conflict. Without the stressor, high socially anxious compared to low socially anxious participants did not differ in any of the dependent variables. However, under stress, the low socially anxious group took more risk and earned more money, while high socially anxious individuals remained more cautious and did not change their risk-taking under social stress. Overall, high socially anxious individuals made their decisions more hesitantly compared to low socially anxious individuals. Unexpectedly, there were no main effects or interactions with the valence of the emotional faces. This data shows that stress affects socially anxious individuals differently: in low socially anxious individuals stress fosters risk-taking, whereas high socially anxious individuals did not alter their behavior and remained risk-averse. The novel eBART is a promising research tool to examine the specific factors that influence decision-making.

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