Some of the most stressful situations in life happen when you're not sure what to do. Suppose you go to the doctor and she finds a suspicious-looking mole on your skin. There is some chance that it might be a dangerous skin cancer. Just the word "cancer" is enough to create a lot of anxiety. At that point, the doctor wants to know how you want to proceed. Should you have the mole removed or should you watch it for a while to see if it changes?
Your natural reaction in that situation is to ask the doctor for her advice.
A paper in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Francesca Gino, Alison Wood Brooks, and Maurice Schweitzer suggests that you should be careful about the way you take advice when you are anxious.
Their work suggests that when you get anxious, you start to question your own knowledge and ability. As a result, you become more interested in taking advice. That alone isn't a problem, but because you are interested in getting advice, you get worse at distinguishing between good advice and bad advice.
In one study, participants guessed the weight of three people from their picture. They were told they would get a cash bonus if their guess was close to the true weight. Next, participants watched film clips designed to make them feel anxious (a mountain climbing accident), angry (a person being treated unfairly) or neither anxious nor angry (a nature video about fish). Then, participants were shown the weight guess made by another individual that they could use as advice. They made a second judgment about each of the three people whose weight they guessed at the start of the study. Finally, measure of people's self-confidence was taken.
The anxious participants made greater use of the advice than either the angry or neutral participants. That is, the anxious participants moved their weight guesses more in the direction of the estimate of the advisor than angry or neutral participants. The anxious people also had lower self-confidence in doing the task than the angry or neutral participants.
Two other studies in this paper are also worth note. In one experiment, participants (given an anxious or neutral mood) were given the task of judging the amount of money in a jar of coins. They were shown advice from two people, one of whom gave a reasonable estimate, and the other of whom gave a very bad estimate. Participants in a neutral mood did a good job of distinguishing between the good and bad advice. The participants who were anxious thought the two people gave equally good advice.
In one final study, participants were once again given a neutral or anxious mood, and again they had to judge the amount of money in a jar. Again, participants were given advice from someone else. Some participants were told that the advisors would get paid only if his advice led the participant to make an accurate judgment. In this case, people should believe that the advisor wants them to be accurate. Other participants were told that the advisor would get paid only if the participant guessed that the jar had more money it in it than it actually did. In this case, participants should think that the advisor is giving biased advice.
Participants in a neutral mood were reluctant to take advice from a biased advisor. Participants who were anxious were highly likely to take advice from an advisor even if that advisor was biased.
Putting all of this work together, then, it seems that anxiety makes people want to take advice to help them feel more confident about judgments and decisions they are making. However, they are so interested in getting advice that they become worse at judging whether the advice they are getting is good.
If you find yourself in a stressful situation, then, there are two important things to do. First, try to bring someone along with you who is not as anxious as you are. That more relaxed friend may be able to help you figure out which advisors you should listen to. Second, if you can't avoid the stress, then spend some extra time evaluating the advice you are given. For example, when making a medical decision, get a second opinion before moving forward with a procedure.
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