How does anxiety affect our decision making?
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 450 million people worldwide have a mental health problem and that mental health accounts for almost 20% of the burden of disease in Europe.
One in four people will be affected by a mental health problem at some time in their life, and anxiety is one of the most common conditions, affecting our ability to go about everyday life and sustain relationships with those around us.
Now two researchers have published their findings from a study into how anxiety and the intense fear and dread that accompany the condition have a direct impact on everyday decision-making processes.
Dr Elizabeth Phelps and Dr Catherine Hartley, both from New York University in the United States, set out to investigate exactly how anxiety affects decision making, as they were shocked by the 'surprisingly little' amount of research that has been carried out into how anxiety disorders influence our ability to tackle decisions despite the seriousness of the issue and the significant distress it causes sufferers.
According to Dr Phelps, their findings underline that science is 'starting to gain some traction by combining emerging decision science with the study of anxiety'.
She adds: 'The overlap in the neural systems underlying anxiety and decision-making provides some insight into how fear and anxiety alters choices.'
Their research takes a neuroeconomic approach: an interdisciplinary field that combines tools from the fields of economics, neuroscience and psychology to study how the brain makes decisions processes.
'Historically, research has focused on the influence of anxiety on how we attend to and interpret events. These same processes should shape how anxious individuals make decisions,' comments Dr Hartley.
They highlight the overlap between the neural systems mediating fear and anxiety and those implicated in studies of economic decision making.
Circuits involving the amygdala, insular cortex and prefrontal cortex are involved in tasks with uncertainty or loss. The amygdala is a key brain region that helps regulate fear and anxiety, while the prefrontal cortex is critically involved in the control of fear.
The duo also reviewed a set of decision-making biases exhibited by anxious individuals and they suggest that the neural circuitry supporting fear learning and regulation may mediate anxiety's influence upon their choices.
Their study shows how reward-related decision making may be affected by other neural circuitries, such as the emotional processing system.
The study has implications for the future application of neuroeconomics in the study of psychiatric disorders.
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Data Source Provider: New York University
Document Reference: Hartley, C.A. and Phelps, E.A. 'Anxiety and Decision-Making. Biological Psychiatry', 2012, 72(2).
Subject Index: Life Sciences; Medicine, Health; Scientific Research; Social Aspects