professional development

Why anxiety makes you a sucker for bad advice

Jaclyn Densley /

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.

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