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Deciding the best course of treatment for a medical condition. Figuring out the right investment plan for your retirement savings. Choosing the most desirable career path for your future. These are all weighty, anxiety-wrought decisions that individuals are faced with nearly every day, and most will seek advice from others before deciding on the right path forward.
The anxiety surrounding such decisions has always intrigued Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer. His curiosity prompted him to look into how it impacts decision-making. "Anxiety is one of my favourite emotions," Schweitzer says. "It's an emotion that is very pervasive, but understudied.... Anxiety has largely been studied as a 'trait' – eg, anxious people – rather than a 'state' – something that all of us experience for periods of time."
Schweitzer, along with Wharton PhD student Alison Wood Brooks and Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, dug deeply into the relationship between anxiety and decision making over the course of two years. They presented their findings in a paper titled Anxiety, Advice and the Ability to Discern: Feeling Anxious Motivates Individuals to Seek and Use Advice, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Relying on eight different experiments, the authors studied how being anxious impacted peoples' openness to accept advice and their likelihood of following poor guidance.
As the researchers note in the paper, three factors influence how receptive individuals are to advice: the characteristics (such as the amount of experience or knowledge) of the advisor; the level of real or perceived difficulty of the decision at hand, and the internal state of the decision-maker when he or she is being given advice. "In almost every domain, individuals discount the advice they receive," the researchers write. "In contrast to this finding, we identify an important aspect of a decision-maker's internal state that causes individuals to be very receptive to advice: anxiety," which they say "promotes feelings of low self-confidence".
There are two types of "state" anxiety – emotions that are triggered by some aspect of the decision itself, or nerves prompted by an unrelated stimulus. The latter was employed by the researchers, who induced stress in their subjects by asking them to listen to scary music, watch a heart-pounding clip from an action movie or write about an anxious time in their lives. Both Schweitzer and Brooks say they would like to look more closely at the other type of state anxiety, but noted that doing so is much more complicated and invasive. "Using incidental anxiety is a very clean way to study the effect this emotion has on anxiety," Brooks notes.
Though Schweitzer and his colleagues decided to use the more "testable" type of anxiety, they point out that the experiments focus on a rarely studied side of decision making. "Previous research has examined the cognitive consequences of experiencing anxiety; here, we investigate its motivational consequences," the researchers write.
"Second, we expand our understanding of the advice-taking process. In particular, we identify the importance of self-confidence and the ability to discern between good and bad advice. Third, although a growing literature has examined advice taking, our work examines the relatively understudied process of advice seeking." Advice taking "is relatively easy to study. There are methodologies in place," Schweitzer adds. "But advice seeking is the more interesting problem."
Anxiety, anger and self-confidence
In the first of their experiments, Schweitzer and his colleagues asked 102 college students to look at a photo of a stranger and estimate that person's weight. The group was told that those who came within 10 pounds of the right answer would receive a $1 bonus. After completing the initial task, some participants were shown an "anxiety-inducing" clip from the movie Vertical Limit; the rest watched a "neutral" clip from a National Geographic documentary about fish on the Great Barrier Reef. Next, the group took a survey to rate their self-confidence and was asked to complete another round of weight estimates. But before being shown the photographs again, participants were asked whether they wanted to receive advice from someone else before making their guesses.
Those put in an anxious state by the movie clip reported "significantly lower" self-confidence than those who watched the nature documentary. Consequently, 90% of the "anxious" participants opted to seek advice, compared to only 72% in the neutral state. Those in the anxious state were also more likely to take the advice they were given.
The next seven experiments built on the first and examined different dimensions of anxiety's influence on advice. Schweitzer notes that eight experiments enabled them to rule out any other factors influencing participants' actions, and to compare different stimuli and influences. "We wanted to make sure it was a legitimate effect, and wanted to make our case in a compelling way," he says.
In the second experiment, the researchers focused on the influence of anger, in hopes of showing the difference between the two emotions. "Anxiety is characterised by a sense of uncertainty, whereas anger is characterised by a sense of certainty," the authors write. They used the same circumstances as the first experiment, but in addition to showing some participants an anxiety-inducing movie clip and some a neutral one, a third group was shown a clip from the movie, The Bodyguard, intended to make them feel angry. The results showed that, like the neutral-state participants, the students in the "angry" group were less receptive to advice and more self-confident than the "anxious" group.
The third experiment employed different stimuli – the theme music from Psycho and Handel's Water Music: Air – and a different test – solving a complicated math problem. In addition to studying how anxiety affected advice taking, the researchers also examined how participants viewed the quality of the advice given. Before solving the math problem, all 79 subjects were handed an envelope containing the same handwritten note, ostensibly from someone who had previously completed the task. Among those in the "anxiety" group, 68% took the advice, compared to only 41% in the neutral condition.
The fourth experiment, according to Brooks, was not part of the original research but was prompted by an anonymous reviewer who wanted to make sure there were no other mediators between anxiety and advice taking beyond the already examined self-confidence.
The experiment involved another test – estimating coins in a jar – and induced anxiety in one group by asking them to write about a stressful experience (the other group wrote about how they spent their evenings), followed by tests to measure participants' levels of information processing and self-confidence.
"We find that anxiety does impair information processing but that only diminished self-confidence, not impaired information processing, mediates the link between anxiety and advice taking," the researchers write.
The most striking results, Schweitzer says, came out of the next three experiments, which 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," Brooks notes. "People in an anxious state were really bad at differentiating between good and bad advice."
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.
Making time for reflection
Despite the deeper understanding of anxiety and its influences that came from their findings, Schweitzer and his colleagues admit that there is still work to be done in this arena. For example, they note in the paper that further work should look at the influence of anxiety and advice processing when the advisor and decision maker meet face-to-face (in their experiments, all of the advice came secondhand.) More broadly, the paper also suggests that future studies should examine the interpersonal dimension of anxiety, noting that researchers could look into how anxiety affects trust and spreads throughout a group.
And as an immediate follow up, Schweitzer and Brooks are focusing on a study of advice seeking, including what leads people to seek advice and the consequences of seeking advice. Additionally, Brooks is working on her dissertation, which examines how individuals can reappraise their anxiety and turn it into a more positive emotion, like excitement.
"After this paper, I thought there has to be an upside to this feeling," Brooks says. "Anxiety is a basic emotion and has to serve some purpose."
According to Schweitzer, the research demonstrates the importance of understanding how anxiety can impact a person's choices. He 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. In addition, he adds that the key element to conquering anxiety is self-confidence.
"People who are very self-confident can overcome these effects," Schweitzer notes. "Most of us, however, will lose confidence in the face of an overwhelming hospital setting or a financial advisor bombarding us with terms we don't understand. It's important to monitor our level of anxiety and recognise that anxiety makes us more receptive to advice and less discriminating."