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Acute stress improves long-term reward maximization in decision-making under uncertainty

Kaileigh A Byrne, Astin C Cornwall, Darrell A Worthy
Brain and Cognition 2019 March 4
30842035
Acute stress influences reward-seeking tendencies and risky decision-making. However, it is unclear how acute stress influences decision-making in situations in which individuals must learn to either maximize long-term or immediate rewards from experience. Consequently, this study sought to investigate whether acute stress enhances salience of small, immediate or large, delayed rewards on decision-making under uncertainty. The Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Task (SECPT) was used to induce acute stress. Participants in Experiment 1 (N = 50) were exposed to either the SECPT or a warm-water control condition and then completed a decision-making task in which participants needed to learn to forego immediate rewards in favor of larger delayed rewards. The results demonstrated that acute stress enhanced decisions that maximized long-term, large rewards over immediate, small rewards. Experiment 2 (N = 50) included an assessment of salivary cortisol. Results replicated the behavioral findings in Experiment 1 and demonstrated that the acute stress manipulation increased salivary cortisol, thus providing a potential physiological mechanism for these results. This work suggests that moderate acute stress can improve decision-making under uncertainty that depends on learning to maximize long-term rewards from experience.

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