A positive focus may be key to performing well under chaotic circumstances

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  • Decision-making skills are especially important during the ongoing pandemic
  • People with anxiety and depression, however, find it difficult to make sound decisions under pressure
  • Researchers found that focusing on previous successes helps them with the process

Individuals suffering from conditions like depression and anxiety have difficulty making sound decisions, according to a recent study published in the journal eLife. Researchers attribute this to the way people tend to view their previous experiences – successes and failures – and added that people who suffer from these conditions find it harder to learn from their mistakes as a result.

The findings of the study are especially important against the background of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, as sound decision-making is crucial to avoid contracting the disease and suffering the consequences. 

Decision-making skills

The probabilistic decision-making skills of more than 300 individuals were tested for the purpose of the study. Probabilistic decision-making involves using the results of previous decisions – whether positive or negative – as a guide to making current decisions. People often make this evaluation unknowingly, and researchers found that this subconscious evaluation greatly impacts their decision making.

Mindset matters

It was found that people with symptoms of both depression and anxiety (excessively worrying, not feeling motivated, low self-esteem) had difficulty adapting when performing tasks in a relatively stressful environment. On the other hand, participants who were deemed emotionally resilient adjusted more quickly to introduced changes because they used previous successes to inform their decision making.  

“When everything keeps changing rapidly, and you get a bad outcome from a decision you make, you might fixate on what you did wrong, which is often the case with clinically anxious or depressed people,” said study author, Professor Sonia Bishop.

 “Conversely, emotionally resilient people tend to focus on what gave them a good outcome, and in many real-world situations that might be key to learning to make good decisions.”

The researchers emphasised that these results do not mean that people with clinical anxiety and depression are unable to make any sound decisions. These people merely need individualised focus to help shift their focus onto successes they’ve had, in order to improve their decision-making skills.

“Our results suggest [people with anxiety and depression] might benefit from cognitive therapies that redirect their attention to positive, rather than negative, outcomes,” professor Bishop concluded. 

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