Author(s), Title and Publication
Yang, Z., Saini, R., & Freling, T. (2015). How anxiety leads to suboptimal decisions under risky choice situations. Risk Analysis, 35(10), 1789-1800.

Decisions that involve risk and uncertainty often require evaluating and prioritizing different pieces of information. Such information can be generally categorized as statistical or anecdotal. In the assessment of a risk situation, individuals are also often influenced more by the anecdotal recall of a single event at the expense of statistical information. In the present research, the authors examine the impact of enhanced anxiety on a decision maker’s tendency to over utilize anecdotal information, even when more reliable statistical information is available—a tendency called the anecdotal bias. Anxiety is a negative emotion that signals a potential threat or unfavorable outcome. The study proposes that situationally activated anxiety about negative outcomes drives decision makers to weigh more heavily on subjective anecdotal information in their decision making, at the expense of more factual statistical information. Four experimental studies provide consistent support for this assertion.

Studies 1A (N = 100) and 1B (N = 96) featured field experiments in which the researchers did not directly manipulate anxiety, but rather had respondents complete a simple choice task on one of two occasions across which anxiety was expected to vary substantially and naturally. Study 2 (N=226) manipulated individuals’ incidental anxiety in the context of message evaluations. Study 3 (N = 102) followed the same design and procedures as Study 1B, but experimentally manipulated anxiety by intensifying participants’ perceived risk of being infected by a contagious disease.

Key Findings

  • Studies 1A and 1B demonstrated that situationally activated incidental anxiety enhanced the anecdotal bias in a choice context, with a significantly larger number of participants in the high anxiety condition choosing the anecdotally superior option, compared with the number of participants making the same choice in the low anxiety condition.
  • Study 2 found that only high-arousal negative emotions such as anxiety/worry enhanced the anecdotal bias, not other negative emotion (e.g., sadness).
  • Study 3 demonstrated the effect of integral anxiety on decision making—consistent with findings from the first three studies—the anecdotal bias was enhanced when anxiety was heightened by individuals’ perception of risk.

Implications for Practice
The study findings yield great application for strategic communication professionals in the health and risk sectors. The results offer strong support for communication strategies that utilize anecdotal and narrative evidence in situations plagued by higher decision anxiety. Anecdotes and exemplars are more effective and persuasive because they are more vivid and easier to process. Statistical information, in contrast, is usually more pallid and requires more cognitive resources to process. Even when statistical evidence is objectively superior, high anxiety may make decision makers more susceptible to anecdotal information. This insight suggests that instead of creating communication messages based on statistical information, it might be optimal to utilize narratives and anecdotes to reinforce statistical information.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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