To Make Smart Decisions Under Stress, Look Down Your Pants

A few weeks ago, I was out with my girlfriend celebrating our anniversary. It was a great night, but a little stressful. Why? I was about to ask her to marry me. My confidence was high, but there’s always that little voice in the back of your head—we all have it—whispering, “But, what if…”

It was a battle inside my mind: stress vs. will. Instead of letting the voice deter or delay me, I defied it, and went through with my plan. She said yes, and now we’re happily planning our wedding.

It was like the stress had fueled me. I became hyper-focused and refused to second-guess myself.

The same thing happened days ago driving to the hospital. I was worried about being late and decided to run a red light (at least I was close to help?). It worked out, but that probably wasn’t the best decision.

Turns out, I was just reacting to stress the way most people do. Sorry, did I say most people? I meant, most men.

According to some fascinating research from USC, how you make decisions under stress is different depending on your gender. Oh, sorry again. Did I say different? I meant completely opposite. Had I been carrying… different equipment… I would have approached my two stressful dilemmas wildly different.

Whether you’re a man or a woman (or any other designation), here’s what you need to know about how stress affects the way you make decisions and what to do to make sure you’re making the smartest ones in any situation.

First: Stress Affects Us All In A Funny Way

It’s fun to think you’re a smart, rational person who can weigh the pros and cons of any given situation and come to the best decision for everyone. And you are that person… in a vacuum.

In reality, though, you’re dealing with a complicated life with lots of inputs and things to consider. Each day, different stressors are working at all times, changing the way you think and interact with the world. The phone rings at an inopportune moment. A meeting comes up. The water bill is higher than expected.

All these things add up and the result, according to a number of studies, is your ability to make balanced decisions gets shifted out of whack. You start to pay more attention to the rewards of your decision and less to the risks.

It makes sense. When you’re stressed out and want to feel normal again, it won’t help to see the downside of a decision. To feel better, you need to see the upside.

But this can be dangerous. An otherwise bad decision—shooting heroin, for example—can start to look pretty good under stress. The benefit of feeling good again becomes overwhelming, and you start to downplay the risk of addiction, infection, and other nasty things can come with such a vice.

This is the same whether you’re a man or a woman. But it’s where the similarity ends. We suffer the same impairment under stress, but the way you react changes depending on the equipment you’re carrying below your belt.

Men: Stress Makes You More Impulsive

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the way men make decisions under stress is also the least surprising: we act faster and with more impulsivity.

In a world still dominated by men, it’s not hard to conjure an image of an army captain sending his troops into battle after a sneak attack from the enemy or a CEO announcing a big shift in strategy after a period of slumping profits.

In some circumstances, this works out well for us. When rewards are high and stakes are low—applying for a job with a higher salary, for example—our quick decisions, impulsive they may be, lead us to more lucrative work. If we don’t get the job, nothing was really lost. If we do, though, we’re in a better position.

But it can also lead to disaster when the stakes are high. A series of well-documented research has shown women outperform men in investing simply because our stress causes us to make poor trading choices without thinking them through.

As a man who’s dedicated to taking smart risks and making better decisions, it’s important to understand how stress affects you. You’ll often come out ahead when the reward is high and the risk is low. But you put yourself in danger when the risks are greater.

Women: You’re Exactly The Opposite…

The fascinating part of the USC research is the finding that when women experienced the same stress test as men, they showed the same bias for reward, but the exact opposite reaction. Instead of making quick and impulsive decisions, they slowed down and gave careful and deliberate thought to their actions.

This is perfect for times when you’re going after something big, but the risk to get it is also big. From the example above, women tend to make better long-term investors than men. Rather than react to short-term losses, they’re willing to wait out the tough times. And their patience pays off.

But when it comes to taking a chance on something with low risk, this patience can hold you back. Sometimes, great opportunities with little risk come, but only for a short while. If you deliberate too long, the opportunity disappears. This could explain one reason men tend to have higher paying jobs. Rather than think and deliberate, they impulsively apply for the job and go for it. Since more men apply for higher earning jobs, more men end up getting them.

As a woman, being aware of this can help embolden your high-risk decisions and give you the push you need when it’s time to act quickly.

Stress Or No, Here’s What To Do Now

The more I research this topic, the more I realize how great it would be to have both a male and female mind involved in every stressful decision. Men about to suffer a big loss from a hasty decision could be talked off the ledge by more patient women, and women on the fence about a great opportunity could be spurred to action by men.

When you need to decide something under stress, the smart thing to do is get a quick second opinion from the opposite sex.

But sometimes, a second opinion just isn’t right or even possible. What to do when that’s the case?

Reduce your stress.

Men and women both make more even-tempered decisions when stress levels are low. If there’s an important decision to make–and you have to make it on your own–here are a few ways to lower your stress to make the best choice possible:

  1. Practice good posture. It’s true—good posture lowers stress. When you stand up straight, stick out your chest. Hold your shoulders back, and straighten your spinal cord. This allows more oxygen to enter your bloodstream which strengthens your muscles, increases blood flow to the brain, and lowers your cortisol levels. Stick your hands on your hips, and you’re in the classic superhero power-pose.
  2. Refuse false scarcity. Ever felt like you had to decide something now only to realize later you could have waited and done better? You fell prey to a powerful marketing tactic called false scarcity. Go to any car lot, mattress store, or even gas station to see this trick in play almost every day. When you feel pressured to make a decision, ask yourself what the consequence is for waiting instead. If there’s no real consequence, you can relieve a lot of the pressure of the decision and give yourself more time to make a measured choice. It’s easy to get caught in a frenzy and make a bad decision you never had to. Don’t let it happen to you!
  3. Remove external inputs. Don’t make decisions in a busy environment. If the phone is ringing, the baby is crying, and there are five people clamoring for your attention, it’s not the best time to make an important decision. Each of these inputs wears on your ability to make a measured choice. Wherever you spend time each day, find a quiet space you can retreat to when you need to make critical decisions.

Of course, if you’re struggling to follow through with a decision that could benefit from a little added stress, there’s a way to do that, as well.

Additional sources:
Decision-Making Under Stress: The Brain Remembers Rewards, Forgets Punishments
Do Women Take as Many Risks as Men?
Hat tip to Vanessa Van Edwards for the “superhero power-pose”