Acute Stress and Reinforcement Learning


The physiological response evoked by short-lived stressful events, referred to as acute stress, impacts human decision-making. Past studies assume that stress causes people to fall back, from more cognitive or deliberative modes of choice, to more primitive or automatic modes of choice because stress impairs peoples’ capacity to process information (working memory). We directly examined how acute stress affects choice in a laboratory decision-making task for which the working memory demands of the two forms of decision-making are well understood, finding that stress impaired use of sophisticated choice strategies that require working memory but did not affect use of simpler, more primitive strategies.