Could stress be changing your perception of risk?

Woman suffering from stress with "Stress affecting risk perception" printed on the let side of the image.

Could stress be changing your perception of risk?

From deadlines and pressure to triggering situations, stress has become a common aspect of people’s work life. In the right setting, stress can help us become more focused on tasks and meet new challenges. It is already known that stress influences memory processes and decision-making under risk and uncertainty. However, new research suggests that stress could be shifting our perception of risks and making us oblivious to new ones. 

Neuroscience informs us that perception is not rational in the way we traditionally consider that term but comes as our brains make a series of quite subjective conclusions based on received sensory inputs, combined with our subjective recall of past experience. People assess risks using a mixture of cognitive skills and emotional appraisal and the way we obtain and understand information directly affects how we recognise and evaluate risks. 

In this blog, we aim to look at the psychological implications of stress and how it can shift our perception of risk and resulting consequences. We will also address what course of action your organisation might have to take in order to minimise such issues.

The influence of stress in the spread of information

A study published in Scientific Reports found that acute stress significantly reduces the social amplification of risk perception. 

In an experiment carried out by researchers at the University of Konstanz, 141 participants were split into two groups to examine the link between stress and the spread of alarmist news. A series of control tasks were given to both groups, yet, half were asked to complete additional tasks at the same time, to deliberately provoke raised stress levels. 

Both groups, stressed an unstressed, were then asked to read six articles about a specific drug present in a range of consumer products. The articles contained a variety of positive, negative and neutral statements. Before and after reading the information, the participants were asked whether they had heard of the drug, whether they were likely to have been exposed to it, and how they perceived the risk of chemical substances in general and the specifically highlighted one. They were also given 17 minutes to write a message to another participant about the substance.

“Overall, these results suggest that under acute stress, people focus less on negative aspects of risk-related information and get less worried by negative information”.

Wolfgang Gaissmaier

Understanding the mind 

At frequent intervals throughout the experiment, subjects’ stress levels were measured via the Cortisol hormone (objective method) and this data was supplemented by a subjective self-evaluative stress level score (from 1 to 10). 

All participants reported an increase in concern after reading articles. But participants in the stressed group with higher levels of Cortisol were less influenced by the articles, showing a smaller increase in concern than those in the control group. They were also less likely to share alarming information in their messages to the other participants. The bigger the increase in cortisol, the smaller the increase in concern. 

In a supporting article by co-author Wolfgang Gaissmaier, he noted that “Overall, these results suggest that under acute stress, people focus less on negative aspects of risk-related information and get less worried by negative information”.

He suggests that acute physiological stress reactions could result in adaptive processes intended to calm us down. When stressed, we may naturally downplay negative information about more distant risks (for example, business-related risks), making us less responsive to it but with the individual benefit that we have more capacity to deal with our personal stresses.

Covid19: this changes everyone’s Risk Context  

We know from ISO3100 that the pre-cursor to any risk assessment is that we should ‘Establish the Context”. The Covid19 pandemic has changed the modern world in an incredibly short period of time. We see this in the constant pursuit of trying to find out what is normal these days? People are disoriented and uncertain, for their health, for their financial security, for their social plans of meeting friends, family, taking vacations. People have lost a lot of their ability to plan forward, so their experience of the present becomes intensified.

In many countries, this personal experience of stress caused by uncertainty has been multiplied by a recent phenomenon for some, of governments creating “culture wars” as a way of polarizing electorates. People are experiencing subtle, but real questions, about identity, association and belonging. Social alliances are being pressurised in ways that people have yet to fully recognise or understand, creating fresh anxieties about what to say, how to behave, who to trust. Mask-wearing has become a “totem issue”; simply wanting to protect yourself at the supermarket from a virus that could have existential implications, can be interpreted as a political statement and bring threats from complete strangers.

In the wider world, industries are experiencing seismic levels of change. Aviation is not expected to return to “2019 normal” until 2024-5. People are questioning whether offices will ever be the same again (not to mention the knock-on implications for the property sector, or pension portfolios). Sectors such as HORECA, tourism, automotive, retail, energy, education have experienced unprecedented levels of contraction and whilst many firms have tried to cope with the initial shocks as a temporary setback, many are now having to make deep, structural adjustments.

Credit lines will disappear, investments will be pulled back, jobs will be lost, people will suffer.

Our new risk context is that these levels of uncertainty and insecurity will affect us, our colleagues, our workforces, our compatriots, in unusual and often hidden ways. We don’t have a readily available term to describe this experience of stress so we will call this “world disorientation”.

Laptop on a desk with a Windows backdrop and the words "Where is everybody?", representing "world disorientation"

Navigating through “World Disorientation”

Stress is a normal part of work. We recognise it in ourselves, in others, in the health and safe working environment rules around employment protection. 

As risk professionals, we need to ensure that on the obvious level, the risk of the effect of stress on workforce capability and performance, is being reviewed and appropriately taken care of, consistent with your organisations’ ethos, resources and legal obligations.

But the research in this study shows that there is another risk to consider. That is, that the people you rely on to identify, assess and manage risks may find that their ability to realistically perceive them, may well be attenuated in a way that they are not aware of. Put very bluntly, your people may not be aware that there is a chance that their capacity to perceive risk may have been reduced and that increases the organisation’s potential exposure to threats. Risk managers are just as exposed to this vulnerability as anyone else. 

A practical step to counteract this potential threat is to make employees – especially those with significant risk process responsibilities – aware of the problem of reduced risk perception. At all layers of risk handling, multiple perspectives and challenge activities should be in place to ensure that reliable analysis and risk evaluation is consistently happening.

For larger organisations with significant data sets available, might consider doing a meta-analysis of risk quantification, to see if there are any unexplained pockets where risks are receiving lower ratings than might otherwise be expected.

If you think your organisation could do with some help explaining risk perception, then feel free to get in touch with us. Stay safe.

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