Jumpy and jonesing for guidance: Anxiety’s effects on seeking, taking, and parsing advice

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Maya Kuehn and was originally posted on Psych Your Mind on July 31, 2012.
We rarely make big life decisions without feeling some anxiety. For example, think back to deciding – if applicable – where and what you wanted to study as an undergraduate, whether and where to go to grad/law/med school, where you wanted to work, what house or car you wanted to purchase, and whom you wanted to marry.

Did you ever do so with a sense of utter calm? Doubtful. And did you ever do so without seeking counsel from an expert, friend, parent, or other loved one? Also doubtful (unless you are supremely self-confident).

This means that when we make important decisions, we frequently seek advice from other people, and we also frequently experience anxiety. But how does the anxiety affect seeking and taking advice when making a decision?

Gino and colleagues investigated this question in a recent paper. They argue that anxiety hurts people’s confidence in their ability to make a good decision, and in turn motivates people to seek and rely on advice from others. Said another way, when feeling anxious, you stop trusting yourself, and start trusting anyone who will offer you advice.

The anxiety ABCs 

Gino and colleagues define anxiety as a feeling of distress and/or arousal in reaction to new situations that have the chance to end poorly, and they use “anxiety” as a blanket term subsuming fear, worry, tension, nervousness, stress, and apprehension.

Importantly, anxiety within a decision-making situation can be induced either by the decision at hand (like where to invest your money or whether to move in with someone) or by a prior stimulus or experience unrelated to the decision (like an anxiety-inducing movie or a terrifying car ride).

Anxiety as an emotional state is deeply unpleasant and high in arousal (meaning it’s the opposite of a calm state), and tends to elicit feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, and a lack of control. Feeling that something is unpredictable and out of control motivates people to reduce those aversive feelings, by preferring options that reduce risk and uncertainty (for instance, preferring to make a decision rather than leave it hanging).

Anxiety also makes us feel less able to achieve specific, desired goals, by hurting our self-efficacy and self-confidence – in other words, leading us to see ourselves as unable to make good decisions. So we’re motivated when anxious to reduce our uncertainty and increase our control, but don’t believe we can do it ourselves. And this conundrum leads us to gather advice from others.

So what’s the problem with anxiously seeking advice?

Great, so we’re a social species, and we seek input from others when we feel we can’t make a decision on our own – seems entirely reasonable. But this could become really harmful when we unwittingly take bad advice. Unfortunately, anxiety may also increase our tendency to do this.

As an example, consider two people who exemplify the findings of Gino and colleagues: (calm) Cate and (nervous) Nelly. Both Cate and Nelly are trying to make estimates of how much money they should offer for a house, with the assistance of their real estate agents.

Cate just came from a relaxing spa massage, is confident while making her judgment, and is sensitive (like most people are) to the quality of advice she receives from her agent while making her offer estimate. In contrast, Nelly, who just watched a terrifying horror movie, feels very anxious while making her estimate.

Nelly’s anxiety will make her unconfident in her own judgment, leading her to seek out and follow advice from her agent to a greater extent than Cate, to perceive her agent’s advice as higher in quality than Cate, and also to see a wider range of possible offers from her agent as reasonable, relative to Cate.

So while Cate is still savvy to the caliber of advice she’s offered, Nelly’s ability to tell good advice from bad has been eroded by her anxiety, and she is now accepting of a broad range of recommendations, some of which are actually bad (and probably motivated by the agent’s conflict of interest – if she offers more, the agent will make a higher commission). Cate will be more likely to recognize the conflict of interest that may be present, and to adequately discount advice from such a source, relative to Nelly.
But is any bad mood enough to make people take bad advice? No: angry Annie, who’s meeting with her agent right after some serious road raging, will actually be less receptive to advice from her agent than Cate (and obviously, Nelly). Anxiety is thus unique (from anger, at least) in its effects on advice dynamics.

The take home message

Anxiety increases our tendency to seek out and follow advice. But anxiety also makes us see advice as generally higher in quality, and makes us less able to tell when advice is shoddy or coming from a source with a conflict of interest. This happens because anxiety reduces our self-confidence in our ability to make a decision independently.
All this is not to say you should never seek advice! Having trusted friends offer advice in times of strife can surely help us feel better and make better decisions. Just be wary of making big decisions while you feel anxious. Don’t let a harrowing drive to the car dealership turn into a new BMW you didn’t know you wanted.

Questions to Consider:
Have you ever taken advice while feeling anxious and regretted your decision later?
Do the people in your life seem particularly wise when you’re worried about something? 

The Article: 
Gino, F., Brooks, A. W., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2012). Anxiety, Advice, and the Ability to Discern: Feeling Anxious Motivates Individuals to Seek and Use Advice Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI:10.1037/a0026413

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