Tuesday, October 22

UCLA professors, staff link some decision-making processes to anxiety

(Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin senior staff)

(Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin senior staff)

With fresh beginnings and newly declared independences, new students have a slew of exciting decisions in front of them. Decision-making can be liberating, but also stifling. A heap of accountability is placed squarely on our shoulders with the possibility of developing into a crippling sense of anxiety. Taking a look at how our brain makes choices, building an awareness of our tendencies and taking certain conscientious steps can make anxiety – as we approach a crossroad – more manageable.


MCGOVERN: At student orientation new students can feel stuck in a struggle to decide upon their schedules and in theory, their futures. As new students embark on a fresh start with many exciting opportunities, they can be faced with an overwhelming sense that it is all too much and suffer from decision anxiety.

VARTAZARIAN: New changes in life bring with them a certain amount of stress even if they’re positive changes; just by virtue of the fact that they are changes can be stressful.

My name is Ani Vartazarian, I’m a staff psychologist at the counseling center at UCLA.

MCGOVERN: She says, this is called eustress. Translated literally from Greek, eustress means “good stress.” It’s basically pressure generated by the anticipation of reaching our goals. This kind of stress can be affected by our perspective, and at least in this case, our perspective about making choices.

VARTAZARIAN: Perspective is really key. If your outlook is that there is this perfect choice out there, that’s a recipe for misery. We want to move away from thinking about choices as right or wrong, and instead start thinking in terms of what’s good enough for me.

MCGOVERN: Choices, she says, don’t in themselves cause anxiety, rather it’s our approach to them. And the good news is, it’s completely normal to feel that way. Dr. Vartazarian doesn’t have the statistics, but she says that anxiety about decision-making can frequently be a part of what students come in to counseling for. And there are things that we can do to manage that decision anxiety.

IZQUIERDO: We are actually doing quite a bit of research on the strategies that enhance decision-making.

MCGOVERN: Alicia Izquierdo is an associate professor in the department of psychology at UCLA. She says that if students can surround themselves with supportive environments, it can make a world of a difference.

IZQUIERDO: Positive social interactions – to exercise, to eat well – all of those are choices that enhance our abilities to weigh our decisions.

MCGOVERN: And learning new things can help. Which isn’t a struggle for new students, but Izquierdo says it’s important to connect that new information to something that’s relevant to your experiences. Another behavior that Dr. Vartazarian says is helpful is the “three-point check.”

VARTAZARIAN: What am I thinking? What are the things that are going through my mind? What’s the narrative? What am I feeling? What are the emotions coming up for me? What am I doing and not doing?

MCGOVERN: It’s a good idea to ask ourselves these questions but it’s also worthwhile to know that we shouldn’t put too much pressure on the decisions we make.

VARTAZARIAN: Ask yourself: Is this decision going to matter to me in a week? Is it going to matter in a month, or a year, or five years?

RISSMAN: People tend to overestimate how much they’ll regret the choices they make. I’m Jesse Rissman, a professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences here at UCLA.

MCGOVERN: Rissman says he isn’t surprised that many people feel burdened by the number of decisions they have to make every day.

RISSMAN: We have many choices available to us and we value our choices because that’s how we define our freedom: having the ability to choose our destiny.

MCGOVERN: But this sense of freedom can sometimes make something as simple as choosing what we’re eating for lunch strangely difficult.


MCGOVERN: In October of 2012, President Obama shared with Vanity Fair that he limited his wardrobe to only gray and blue suits to simplify one of his daily routine decisions.

RISSMAN: Having some of the decisions taken away from us can be useful. If there are fewer choices, you’re not wasting mental energy and potentially getting yourself into this anxious and mentally taxing state of deliberating between them. We don’t want our mind to get bogged down with all of the mundane decisions.

MCGOVERN: We want to conserve our mental energies for more important decisions and, luckily, our brain has the ability to handle inconsequential decisions in the way that it approaches decision-making. As Prof. Rissman puts it:

RISSMAN: Psychologists have found it useful to think of decision-making in terms of these two competing systems.

MCGOVERN: The first system, he says, is our gut reactions, driven by our emotions and intuitions. And the second system is a …

RISSMAN: Deliberate, consciously controlled, effortful way of evaluating pros and cons of a situation and determining which outcome will have the biggest payoff for us.

MCGOVERN: And as Prof. Rissman says, listening to a combination of the emotional system and the logical one, and in some situations just going with our gut, can help us achieve the best and most efficient decision possible. There are, however, a few factors that can tip this balance.

RISSMAN: When the brain is anxious or stressed, the prefrontal cortex and other regions of the brain will be taxed and not necessarily able to perform their full duty. The number of decisions you have can further exacerbate that anxiety.

MCGOVERN: Our physical state can also affect our ability to make good decisions. A study published in 2011 titled “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions” showed that judges making parole decisions were more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day and directly after lunch, and increasingly less likely to in subsequent decisions throughout the rest of that day. This was attributed to a subconscious sense of decision fatigue as their day went on. And there is one other thing that affects our decision-making that we also have absolutely no control over: our age.

RISSMAN: The parts of the brain that involve thoughtfully considering the options and the potential outcomes develop very slowly; this prefrontal system is underdeveloped into your early twenties. The system is finally reaching its maturity, but it’s not quite there yet.

MCGOVERN: Along with Prof. Rissman, Prof. Izquierdo also believes that age plays a large role in our cognitive ability to make good decisions.

IZQUIERDO: Those gut reactions you can’t really quite verbally describe, it’s important to listen to those as well, but those can be really strong in youth. It’s not just that the younger brain makes poor choices relative to the older brain. When you’re young and you’re establishing your independence, you’re going to want to maximize a lot of opportunities and that’s in your best interest.

MCGOVERN: So we just have to accept that we can’t make every decision knowing all the facts. We can’t know what the future holds. We don’t have our own personal crystal ball. But, we can take steps and check in with ourselves to attempt to make the best choice possible. And we can be satisfied with the fact that we actually gave ourselves the chance to make that choice. From Daily Bruin Radio, I’m Kathleen McGovern.

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