Acute stress improves long-term reward maximization in decision-making under uncertainty. Academic Article uri icon


  • Acute stress influences reward-seeking tendencies and risky decision-making. However, it is unclear how acute stress influences decision-making in situations in which individuals must learn to either maximize long-term or immediate rewards from experience. Consequently, this study sought to investigate whether acute stress enhances salience of small, immediate or large, delayed rewards on decision-making under uncertainty. The Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Task (SECPT) was used to induce acute stress. Participants in Experiment 1 (N=50) were exposed to either the SECPT or a warm-water control condition and then completed a decision-making task in which participants needed to learn to forego immediate rewards in favor of larger delayed rewards. The results demonstrated that acute stress enhanced decisions that maximized long-term, large rewards over immediate, small rewards. Experiment 2 (N=50) included an assessment of salivary cortisol. Results replicated the behavioral findings in Experiment 1 and demonstrated that the acute stress manipulation increased salivary cortisol, thus providing a potential physiological mechanism for these results. This work suggests that moderate acute stress can improve decision-making under uncertainty that depends on learning to maximize long-term rewards from experience.

published proceedings

  • Brain Cogn

altmetric score

  • 10.5

author list (cited authors)

  • Byrne, K. A., Cornwall, A. C., & Worthy, D. A.

citation count

  • 12

complete list of authors

  • Byrne, Kaileigh A||Cornwall, Astin C||Worthy, Darrell A

publication date

  • January 2019