Stress clearly changes people's behavior. Just think about the last time that you were driving and someone nearly plowed into you. Your driving behavior was probably affected for some time to come.
Short-term stress reactions like this are influenced by hormones. When you experience a stressful event, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol, which is known to affect both the brain and the body.
A paper by mara Mather, Marissa Gorlick, and Nichole Lighthall in the February, 2009 issue of Psychological Science examined how risk-taking behavior was affected by stress both for young adults (between 18 and 33) and older adults (over 65).
To manipulate stress, participants either bathed their arm in warm water for 3 minutes (a low stress condition) or in ice water for 3 minutes (a high stress condition). This manipulation led to higher levels of cortisol release in the high stress group than in the low stress group.
Then, all participants played a risk-taking game in which they had to decide how long to allow a car to keep driving. In this task, participants hold down a button to keep a car driving across a screen. As soon as the car starts moving, the yellow light of a traffic light comes on. This light will stay on between 2 and 7 seconds, and the player gets more points the longer the car stays driving. However, they player has to stop before the light turns red. Otherwise, they lose all of their points.
The behavior of younger adults was not reliably affected by the stress. There was a slight tendency for the younger adults to take more risks under high stress compared to the low stress condition, but generally speaking the differences were small. In contrast, the older adults were far less likely to take risks under high stress than under low stress. They stopped their car more quickly, and earned far fewer points than the younger adults.
In many situations in life, a little risk can lead to reward. In business, people often borrow money in the present in the hope of making money in the future. In relationships, pursuing a new romantic partner requires taking on the risk of rejection. Even decisions about medical treatments may require some risk in order to combat a serious illness. Many decisions of this type are stressful, and the decision process itself can create stress.
To the extent that older adults react to stress by decreasing their willingness to take on risks, they may also decrease their chances of reaping the rewards that come with risk. One implication of this interesting research is that older adults who must make risky decisions in stressful circumstances might ask the advice of younger adults to help them evaluate the risk-benefit tradeoff in the decision they face.