Stress and decision-making in humans: Performance is related to cortisol reactivity, albeit differently in men and women

Ethology and Welfare, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.
Psychoneuroendocrinology (Impact Factor: 4.94). 07/2009; 34(10):1449-58. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.04.016
Source: PubMed


Acutely elevated levels of cortisol are associated with euphoria and reward-like properties related to sensation-seeking behaviour. Thus, acute stress and elevated levels of cortisol may promote risk-taking behaviour. High cortisol responders are more sensitive to immediate rewards than low cortisol responders. In this study we therefore tested whether acute stress in male and female subjects, induced by the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), affects decision-making as measured by the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) and to what extent this is related to cortisol reactivity. Control subjects did not receive the stress manipulation. We specifically predict that high responders show risk-taking behaviour in the IGT compared to low responders and controls. The data show that the more (salivary) cortisol levels are elevated after the TSST the poorer the subsequent performance in the IGT in male subjects. In female subjects an inverse relationship between cortisol levels and IGT performance is observed: slightly elevated levels of cortisol after the TSST improve IGT performance, while highly elevated levels decrease IGT performance. Thus, acute stress as induced by the TSST affects decision-making behaviour of men and women differently and cortisol reactivity is associated with decision-making performance.

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    • "Here, pure domains,—i.e., options that contain only positive (pure gain) or only negative (pure loss) amounts—are distinguished from the mixed domain in which one option can yield either a gain or a loss, and it is known that the domain can influence decision making (e.g., Kahneman and Tversky, 1979). Whereas pure gain and pure loss domains were used in the lotteries of Porcelli and Delgado (2009) and the modified GDT of Pabst et al. (2013b), the IGT (Preston et al., 2007; van den Bos et al., 2009) and the original GDT (Starcke et al., 2008; Pabst et al., 2013a,c) provide mixed domain options. Therefore, the possibility exists that risk taking is differentially influenced by stress depending on the decision making domain. "
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    ABSTRACT: Economic decisions are often made in stressful situations (e.g., at the trading floor), but the effects of stress on economic decision making have not been systematically investigated so far. The present study examines how acute stress influences economic decision making under uncertainty (risk and ambiguity) using financially incentivized lotteries. We varied the domain of decision making as well as the expected value of the risky prospect. Importantly, no feedback was provided to investigate risk taking and ambiguity aversion independent from learning processes. In a sample of 75 healthy young participants, 55 of whom underwent a stress induction protocol (Trier Social Stress Test for Groups), we observed more risk seeking for gains. This effect was restricted to a subgroup of participants that showed a robust cortisol response to acute stress (n = 26). Gambling under ambiguity, in contrast to gambling under risk, was not influenced by the cortisol response to stress. These results show that acute psychosocial stress affects economic decision making under risk, independent of learning processes. Our results further point to the importance of cortisol as a mediator of this effect.
    Full-text · Article · May 2014 · Frontiers in Neuroscience
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    • "Stress has been repeatedly linked to suboptimal decision-making. Men have been shown to display more risk-taking behavior under acutely stressful conditions in both the IGT (Preston et al., 2007; van den Bos et al., 2009) and other decision-making tasks (Balloon Analogue Risk Task, Lighthall et al., 2009; Game of Dice Task, Starcke et al., 2008; Starcke and Brand, 2012). Specifically, cortisol reactivity correlated negatively with decision-making performance in the IGT in men, i.e., the higher the salivary cortisol levels, the poorer task performance (van den Bos et al., 2009; conform Pabst et al., 2013; van den Bos et al., 2014). "
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    ABSTRACT: Corticosteroid hormones, released after stress, are known to influence neuronal activity and produce a wide range of effects upon the brain. They affect cognitive tasks including decision-making. Recently it was shown that systemic injections of corticosterone (CORT) disrupt reward-based decision-making in rats when tested in a rat model of the Iowa Gambling Task (rIGT), i.e., rats do not learn across trial blocks to avoid the long-term disadvantageous option. This effect was associated with a change in neuronal activity in prefrontal brain areas, i.e., the infralimbic (IL), lateral orbitofrontal (lOFC) and insular cortex, as assessed by changes in c-Fos expression. Here, we studied whether injections of CORT directly into the IL and lOFC lead to similar changes in decision-making. As in our earlier study, CORT was injected during the final 3 days of the behavioral paradigm, 25 min prior to behavioral testing. Infusions of vehicle into the IL led to a decreased number of visits to the disadvantageous arm across trial blocks, while infusion with CORT did not. Infusions into the lOFC did not lead to differences in the number of visits to the disadvantageous arm between vehicle treated and CORT treated rats. However, compared to vehicle treated rats of the IL group, performance of vehicle treated rats of the lOFC group was impaired, possibly due to cannulation/infusion-related damage of the lOFC affecting decision-making. Overall, these results show that infusions with CORT into the IL are sufficient to disrupt decision-making performance, pointing to a critical role of the IL in corticosteroid effects on reward-based decision-making. The data do not directly support that the same holds true for infusions into the lOFC.
    Full-text · Article · Apr 2014 · Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
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    • "Also, men show slower learning of task contingencies with increasing cortisol. Performance of women seems to follow an inverted U-shaped function (van den Bos et al., 2009). Other results indicate poorer performance of both sexes at the beginning of task performance with woman showing an improvement later in the game, while men show continuously poor performance (Preston et al., 2007). "
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    ABSTRACT: Recent studies have shown that acute stress can lead to riskier decision making. Yet, the underlying mechanisms of the stress effects on decisions under risk remain poorly understood. To gain a better understanding of decision-making processes and potential strategy application under stress, we investigated decision making in pure gain and loss domains with unequal expected values (EVs) across alternatives. We conducted an experimental study with a 2 × 2 design (stress vs. no stress and gain domain vs. loss domain). The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) was utilized to induce acute stress. Controls performed the placebo-TSST (p-TSST). To validate the stress response we measured salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase concentrations. We used a modified version of the Game of Dice Task (GDT) to assess decision-making performance in a gain and a loss domain. Results showed that non-stressed participants made less risky decisions in the gain domain compared to those of the loss domain. This behavior is in accordance with previous studies and indicates the stability of the framing effect in even more complex tasks with changing EVs across alternatives. Stress did not alter risk taking behavior in the gain domain. Yet, in the loss domain stressed participants made less risky decisions compared to controls. Additionally, the data support earlier findings of longer reaction times in loss compared to gain domains due to higher cognitive effort for loss-framed decisions. It is discussed that stress may lead to reduced amygdala activation, which has been found to reduce riskier decisions in a loss domain. With respect to earlier results of riskier decisions in tasks that unite both gain and loss domains, it is discussed whether stress leads to a stronger evaluation of high gains and a neglect of losses.
    Full-text · Article · Oct 2013 · Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
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