Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Anxiety is an emotion experienced by everyone at some point or other. Decisions ranging from which job offer to accept, to which medical treatment to opt for are all events that can cause a few sleepless nights.

But does feeling anxious have an impact on the decisions an individual makes? Is an individual more likely to follow bad advice when anxious?

Over a two-year period, Maurice Schweitzer, an operations and information management professor at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, with Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and Wharton PhD student Alison Wood Brooks conducted a series of experiments to understand if there was a link between anxiety and an individual’s willingness to accept advice.

They discovered that at almost every opportunity an individual will discount the advice they receive, except in one instance. When an individual is anxious, say the authors, he or she is very receptive to advice because anxiety “promotes feelings of low self confidence”.

The academics asked 102 college students to estimate the weight of a stranger from a photograph. Those that were within 10lbs would be given $1. Some of the participants were then made to feel anxious by being shown an “anxiety inducing” film clip from the film Vertical Limit, while others merely watched a neutral film clip. The entire group then rated their self confidence in a survey and embarked on a second round of weight estimates. Before beginning this second test they were asked if they would like to receive advice from a third party about the weight estimates.

The writers found that those who had watched Vertical Limit reported significantly lower self confidence than those who had watched the neutral film clip. And 90 per cent of the anxious participants then decided to seek advice when offered, compared with 72 per cent of their calmer peers. Moreover, the worried participants were more inclined to take the advice they were given.

The researchers ran a series of further experiments. They found that anxious participants were very bad at discerning between good and bad advice, whereas the neutral participants were able to make a distinction.

“The problem is that those two things – being receptive to advice and being less discriminating – can combine in a way that can be harmful for individuals.” says Prof Schweitzer.

Their paper “Anxiety, Advice and the Ability to Discern: Feeling Anxious Motivates Individuals to Seek and Use Advice” is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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