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J Neurosci. 2017 Jun 7;37(23):5681-5689. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3618-16.2017. Epub 2017 May 8.

Chronic and Acute Stress Promote Overexploitation in Serial Decision Making.

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Department of Psychology and.
Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, and.
Department of Psychology and
Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, New York 10003.
Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, Orangeburg, New York 10962.


Many decisions that humans make resemble foraging problems in which a currently available, known option must be weighed against an unknown alternative option. In such foraging decisions, the quality of the overall environment can be used as a proxy for estimating the value of future unknown options against which current prospects are compared. We hypothesized that such foraging-like decisions would be characteristically sensitive to stress, a physiological response that tracks biologically relevant changes in environmental context. Specifically, we hypothesized that stress would lead to more exploitative foraging behavior. To test this, we investigated how acute and chronic stress, as measured by changes in cortisol in response to an acute stress manipulation and subjective scores on a questionnaire assessing recent chronic stress, relate to performance in a virtual sequential foraging task. We found that both types of stress bias human decision makers toward overexploiting current options relative to an optimal policy. These findings suggest a possible computational role of stress in decision making in which stress biases judgments of environmental quality.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Many of the most biologically relevant decisions that we make are foraging-like decisions about whether to stay with a current option or search the environment for a potentially better one. In the current study, we found that both acute physiological and chronic subjective stress are associated with greater overexploitation or staying at current options for longer than is optimal. These results suggest a domain-general way in which stress might bias foraging decisions through changing one's appraisal of the overall quality of the environment. These novel findings not only have implications for understanding how this important class of foraging decisions might be biologically implemented, but also for understanding the computational role of stress in behavior and cognition more broadly.


decision making; foraging; stress

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