How Does Chronic Stress Impact Decision Making?

July 14, 2018 Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner

Approx. read time: 3 minutes

“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” ― Mark Twain


Of all of the the contexts (and I trust there are many) in which the Business Brain Model  is relevant– amongst the most important is when it comes to decision making.

I have written about this from several perspectives:


“Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven’t fallen asleep yet.” –Anonymous

a woman stressed

A scientific article creates still another perspective for us to be aware of.

The definitive research is published in the article (Chronic Stress Alters Striosome-Circuit Dynamics, Leading to Aberrant Decision-Making) which concludes with several salient points:

  • Chronic stress produces abnormal cost-benefit integration in decision-making
  • This reflects abnormal in-task firing dynamics of prefrontal and striatal cells
  • This circuit disorder leads to highly elevated firing of striosomal output neurons
  • Optogenetic manipulations can mimic or reverse these behavioral effects of stress

For those that feel compelled to hear it in more scientific jargon:

  • Concomitantly, alterations in the task-related spike activity of medial prefrontal neurons correspond with increased activity of their striosome-predominant striatal projection neuron targets and with decreased and delayed striatal fast-firing interneuron activity.” (Chronic Stress Alters Striosome-Circuit Dynamics, Leading to Aberrant Decision-Making)
  • “Striosomes are chemical compartments that are necessary for brain function. But abnormalities in striosomes can cause mood disorders. Cortical neurons inhibit striosome activity, but stress slows their firing, making them too late to inhibit risk-taking behavior.” (Why Stress Leads Us to Make Bad Decisions and Do Stupid Things)


“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” – Kahlil Gibran

 I have tried to put some takeaways into a more relevant perspective:

  • Implications include the context of costs/benefits perspective
  • The stressed mice were far more likely to choose the high-risk, high-reward maze.
  • The risk is manifested as uninhibited behavior.

This is, of course, chronic and severe stress but where is the line? Surely, it is safe (but worrisome) to assume other levels of stress could have a negative impact on optimal, rational decision-making with manifestations such as these illustrated by the above study.

Looking Ahead

“Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there.’ – Eckhart Tolle

There are, however, “reasons for hope” reflected in the study:

  • Researchers found that they could modify the impulsive behavior in the mice by manipulating a particular circuit in prefrontal cortex.
  • The implications for humans are promising. For example: It could help patients with disorders such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, which often feature poor decision-making.

decision making

What is a Businessperson to do?

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James

I have reported some ideas in the following article titled: “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye


  1. Alexander Friedman, Daigo Homma, Bernard Bloem, Leif G. Gibb, Ken-ichi Amemori, Dan Hu, Sebastien Delcasso, Timothy F. Truong, Joyce Yang, Adam S. Hood, Katrina A. Mikofalvy, Dirk W. Beck, Norah Nguyen, Erik D. Nelson, Sebastian E. Toro Arana, Ruth H. Vorder Bruegge, Ki A. Goosens, Ann M. Graybiel – Chronic Stress Alters Striosome-Circuit Dynamics, Leading to Aberrant Decision-Making
  2. Kristin Hugo – Why Stress Leads Us To Make Bad Decisions And Do Stupid Things
  3. IANS – Stressed at work? Here’s why you should always reconsider your decisions

Relevant Business Brain Model articles

  1. The cheesy truth about decision making….
  2. Thinking Errors: Part One – Is your Radar set to Detect Cognitive Traps?
  3. Thinking Errors: Part Two – The Ironic Magnitude of Cognitive Biases
  4. Thinking Errors: Part Three – A Field Guide to Thinking Errors
  5. Thinking Errors: Part Four – Arming Yourself in the Battle with Your Mind
  6. Your Brain: How “committees” on terrorism, concerts and weddings guide you
  7. Einfühlung
  8. The Best Ways to Spot a Liar
  9. How Do You Know Who You Can Trust?
  10. How You Can Get a Date
  11. Freaking out about the guy the “Freakonomics” guy freaks out about
  12. Hooked on Hedonics: Is Happiness the next Holy Grail of Business?
  13. Why your gray and white matter matters?
  14. It is Past Time to Slaughter Your Sacred Cow
  15. Would you like to leave the kitchen or learn how to deal with the heat?
  16. Paradoxes To Live By
  17. Our Wiring Isn’t Getting Any Better?!?!
  18. When is the best time to decide why you failed?

About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.