People May Process Bad News Better Under Stress

Threat erodes the human tendency to readily accept good news over bad, according to experiments conducted in a lab and with on-duty firefighters.

Researchers at Princeton University in the U.S. and University College London in the UK note that, in general, people tend to be overly optimistic. The opposite is true in psychiatric conditions such as depression, in which some people are biased toward negative information.

Through their experiments, researchers say they show that the ability to flexibly shift between these two patterns can be a healthy, adaptive response to changing environmental demands.

For the study, the researchers induced stress in a controlled laboratory experiment by telling participants they had to give a surprise public speech. They then asked participants to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different aversive events in their life, such as being involved in a car accident or becoming a victim of credit card fraud.

Participants were then given good news (being told that their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower than they had estimated) or bad news (that it was higher). Researchers then asked participants to provide new estimates.

According to the study’s findings, the control group showed the well-known optimism bias — a tendency to take more notice of good news compared to bad news.

In contrast, the stressed participants showed no such bias and became better at processing bad news.

The researchers add they obtained similar results in a study of Colorado firefighters, who naturally experience fluctuating periods of stress as part of their job.

The study was published in JNeurosci.

Source: The Society for Neuroscience

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