We live in a world that seems custom designed to make us anxious. Between the endless natural disasters, political paralysis, loneliness epidemic, job stealing (or even world-ending) robots, and regular threats of nuclear annihilation, it's no wonder the nation's mental health professionals claim anxiety (particularly among young people) is on the rise.
That is obviously no fun for those suffering from anxiety, but according to a worrying new study, all this fear is also probably having a pernicious side effect on our decision making. Anxiety, the researchers discovered, can effectively silencing our gut instincts.
Anxiety kills intuition.
To test the effect of anxiety on intuition, the team of European researchers recruited more than 100 volunteers to participate in a standard test of subconscious thinking. It asks participants to quickly judge whether a trio of words (foam, deep, and salt, say) are somehow related (in the previous example, for instance, they all relate to the sea). If a participant can spot that the words are connected but can't articulate why, the researchers judge that she has used her intuition to find the correct answer.
For this study the researchers added an interesting twist to this simple test of people's ability to access their gut instincts. Before the test, different subjects were given different emotional prompts. Some were made to feel happy and secure by hearing about loving, supportive relationships. Another bunch was induced to feel anxious by a bleak story of an unforgiving, danger-filled world. A control group wasn't given an emotional prompt at all.
So how did the participants' emotions affect their intuition? The performance of those who were made to feel anxious plummeted, according to the Association for Psychological Science blog. If your head is filled with worries, it seems, it's really hard to hear your gut amidst all the noise.
Exactly how anxiety works to shut down our ability to make intuitive decisions isn't entirely clear, but the researchers suggest that it might have something to do with self-confidence. When we're feeling anxious, we're less likely to have the optimism and trust in ourselves required to take a leap and go with our gut.
As anxiety sufferer Katie Heaney notes in her writeup of the research for the Science of Us blog, this makes total sense. The guts of those with serious anxiety alert them to "danger" all the time, most of the time those worries turn out to be entirely overblown. No wonder they learn to tune out their intuition.
"Many of us deal with what could be considered 'cues' and 'hunches' all the time: a racing heart, elevated heartbeat, sweating, weird twinges and tingles. For many anxious people, the psychosomatic symptom possibilities are endless, and only infrequently indicate that something is actually wrong," Heaney writes. "In many cases, it's wiser for us to ignore these 'signs' and symptoms than to take them seriously."
Given the difficulty in separating slightly insane, anxiety-induced instincts from actually valuable ones, it's hard to suggest a takeaway from this research. But just knowing about the link between worry and intuition might be enough to improve the decision-making of those with more garden variety levels of anxiety.
You can at least be aware that the time to make calls that require you to listen to your gut isn't when you're feeling most anxious about the situation. Calming down by going for a run, hanging out with friends, or counting your blessings is probably a better foundation for getting in touch with your intuition than late night worrying about everything that might go wrong.