“Just go with your gut!” everyone told me about choosing where to go to college, a decision which I was immensely, agonizingly anxious about. I couldn’t choose, much to the confusion of everyone around me. When I did finally make a decision, I then promptly dropped out before transferring. Twice.
I’m not alone in having a hard time hearing what my gut has to say when I’m already anxious, something a new study published in Clinical Psychological Science supports: researchers from the University of Basel and the Berlin Psychological University found that anxiety may impair your ability to listen to your intuition.
The study defines gut thinking or intuitive decision making as something that comes “effortlessly from an unconscious, associative coherence detection process.” We use this sort of decision making daily, but when we’re anxious, we “often make poor decisions or no decision at all,” the researchers write in the study.
The researchers wanted to put this link between anxiety and poor decision making to the test. They randomly assigned 111 participants to three different groups: anxious, neutral and optimistic. To literally get participants into each mood, they showed each group different images and sentences primed to make them either anxious, neutral or optimistic. For example, the anxious group read sentences like “safety is not guaranteed in our neighborhoods nor in our own homes,” which was intended to highlight the “lack of control over negative circumstances that may happen in life and an uncertain future,” according to the study. The positive mood sentences focused on cheerier things like personal achievement and the warmth of our friends.
Participants also filled out different questionnaires to measure their mood and existing anxiety levels three different times throughout the experiment. (Once before their mood was manipulated and once after, and again at the very end of the experiment.) To measure their intuition, participants self-reported their existing tendency to trust their gut and then completed a word-association task where they were told to use their gut to come up with their answers. Afterwards, they reported how much (on a 1-to-5 scale) how much they had trusted their instincts during the task.
The researchers found that people in the anxious group were significantly worse at using their intuition to complete the task compared to their peers. In the study, they point to previous research that supports their findings, showing that being anxious can make it harder to see all of your options and make decisions.
As Katie Heaney writes for The Cut about the findings, “anxiety makes us risk-averse, pessimistic, and less confident—all qualities which make us likelier to choose what we perceive as the most safe, routine, and unchallenging decision.”
Read the entire study here.