In a study that assessed how people respond to unpredictability, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Oxford determined that those likely to experience high anxiety will have a tougher time dealing with the signs in the environment that could help in a difficult situation.
The findings allude to an apparent problem in brain circuits involved in making high-order decisions that could be used in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
“Anxiety may be linked to difficulty in using information about whether the situations we face daily, including relationship dynamics, are stable or not, and deciding how to react,” said study lead author Sonia Bishop, assistant professor of psychology at the UC Berkeley.
A person likely to get anxious easily will find it challenging to assess the situations and identify the context of surrounding events to respond appropriately.
In the study, Bishop and her team assessed the decision-making skills of 31 young and middle-aged adults who had an anxiety baseline ranging from low to extreme.
Scientists also used eye-tracking to detect pupil dilation – an indicator of brain releasing norepinephrine to help send signals to multiple brain regions.
Participants were asked to play a computerized game in which they repeatedly chose between two shapes, one of which, if selected, would deliver a mild to moderate electrical shock.
Highly anxious people had more trouble than their less anxious counterparts adjusting to this and thus avoiding shocks.
“Their choices indicated they were worse at figuring out whether they were in a stable or erratic environment and using this to make the best choices possible,” Bishop noted.
The findings help explain why anxious individuals may find decision-making under uncertainty hard as they struggle to pick up on clues as to whether they are in a stable or changing situation,” the authors concluded.
The study was published in journal Nature Neuroscience.