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The Real Outcome of Anxiety
 

Think anxiety heightens your senses and makes you cautious? Research out of Wharton and Harvard finds quite different results.

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Should you open a new location or invest in your existing premises? Is a new supplier the answer to your prayers or a potential money-suck? Fire that high performing jerk or let him continue rake in revenue and dent your company culture?

Business owners face tough, consequential decisions like these routinely, and it's natural that such difficult calls produce some degree of anxiety. But how does that anxiety affect your thinking?

The hopeful might speculate that anxiety heightens your sensitivity and makes you careful, prompting you to gather all the relevant facts and carefully weigh information. But according to new research out of Wharton and Harvard Business School, only half that common sense hope turns out to be true.

In a series of experiments, the research team asked study subjects to perform estimating tasks after inducing different emotional states in the participants. Some were shown tense, anxiety-producing movie clips or asked to reflect on anxious times in their lives before producing the estimates. Others were either prompted in similar ways to feel angry or shown a neutral clip of a nature documentary about sea life.

Anxiety, it turns out, does make people more likely to seek out advice. The only problem is, it also makes them lousy at distinguishing whether that advice is any good. Knowledge@Wharton reports:

The most striking results… looked at how anxiety impacts one's ability to discern between good and bad advice. The experiments used the same writing task as the prior study, followed by the same estimating task. Some participants were given bad advice; others were given accurate estimates for the number of coins in the jar. Those who were in a neutral state were more likely to take advice when the person giving it was purportedly very accurate; anxious participants, however, tended to make no such distinction. "The most surprising thing was [participants'] inability to discern in an anxious emotional state," [researcher Allison Wood] Brooks notes. "People in an anxious state were really bad at differentiating between good and bad advice."

[Wharton professor Maurice] Schweitzer adds that these results also show just how dangerous anxiety can be. "The problem is that those two things--being receptive to advice and being less discriminating--can combine in a way that can be harmful for individuals." In the final experiment, the researchers found that anxious individuals were more open to, and more likely to rely on, advice even when they knew that the person offering it had a conflict of interest.

The takeaway is simple. When you're feeling anxious about a decision, feel free to seek out all the opinions you desire. Just don't act on that input until you’re calm and can evaluate its usefulness without being influenced by anxiety. 

Schweitzer "suggests that people refrain from making major decisions until they are in a relaxed state and are able to clearly reflect on the matter at hand." 

 

IMAGE: Lynn Koenig/Getty
Last updated: Dec 27, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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