Why do some people thrive under stress while others buckle?

My research has shown that not all stress is bad, but how people react to stressful situations — psychologically and physiologically — can affect their decision making, creativity, and negotiations, as well as their long-term health. 

I distinguish between two qualitatively different physiological stress responses: fluid and constructive. In the fluid stress response (i.e., challenge), the heart beats fast but efficiently because the arteries are dilated, which facilitates blood flow through the body. This cardiovascular pattern is characteristic of athletes in a game, performers on stage, and programmers coding “in the zone.” Socially, this response makes people more open and approach oriented. In the constrictive stress response (i.e., threat), the heart pumps hard and fast but the arteries are constricted, which limits oxygenation and can heighten blood pressure. This pattern is accompanied by the release of the hormone cortisol and feelings of tension and anxiety. Accordingly, it induces social reticence and withdrawal. 

My work has uncovered conditions that trigger each type of stress response, and I have tested their effects on performance. I have also designed practical interventions to help individuals manage stress and optimize performance, health, and wellbeing.

How do hormones related to stress and status attainment affect team performance and decision making in the workplace?

In many workplaces, the highest status individuals regularly work together to make key organizational decisions. Yet, when there are too many high-status people in a group, each striving to dominate, stress and conflict can escalate. 

To look at how the hormones of team members can affect team performance [https://modupe-akinola-dev.squarespace.com/s/collective-hormonal-profiles-predict-group-performance.pdf], we measured their testosterone, which is associated with status-striving behavior, particularly in competitive settings. We also measured their cortisol, to determine each group member’s susceptibility to stress. We found that groups that were collectively high in testosterone engaged in optimal decision making — but only when the group was also collectively low in cortisol. These findings suggest that groups with members who are striving for status will outperform other groups, but only under conditions of low stress. The findings also demonstrate that hormone profiles at the group level can shape group decision making, opening up new avenues to explore the processes that determine which groups rise to the top across social hierarchies.

Can certain types of decision making be enhanced by stress?

Our stress system evolved to help us detect threats by narrowing the focus of our attention, facilitating swift decision making in threatening situations.

To find out whether threat-related decision making might be enhanced by stress, we exposed police officers to a stressful situation intended to increase their cortisol and then examined their decisions about whether or not to fire their weapon. In a computer simulation, they had to quickly decide whether or not to shoot armed and unarmed black and white male targets. Officers with greater increases in cortisol made fewer errors in their shooting decisions, particularly with black armed targets — those considered the most threatening based on societal stereotypes. Although studies have found that increases in cortisol can impair risky and moral decision making, we found that cortisol can enhance decision making when the task requires vigilance and attention to threat. These findings underscore the importance of understanding the nature of decision-making tasks when predicting the influence of stress.

How can stress affect creativity? 

There is a lot of research urging us to stop “multitasking,” as it is inherently stressful. Studies have shown that regularly switching between different tasks is distracting, contributes to errors, leads to forgetting, diminishes learning, and can heighten social anxiety.

Yet my research suggests there is a key benefit to multitasking that is overlooked by researchers and managers: Temporarily setting aside a task to work on something else keeps us from fixating on initial, unsuccessful strategies and allows us to re-approach the task from fresh angles. As a result, continually switching between tasks enhances creativity.

In two experiments, individuals who continually alternated between two creative tasks produced more flexible and novel ideas than individuals who switched between the tasks at their discretion or who worked on one task for half the time before switching to the other. Importantly, we also found that most people erroneously expect continual task switching to impair rather than maximize their creativity, and tend to switch between tasks infrequently.

Can interventions help reduce the negative effects of stress in the workplace?

I have designed and tested a number of strategies and interventions that managers and organizations can use to better manage stress. One intervention involves changing people’s mindset about the nature of stress in general. Through short video clips and training sessions, I show that teaching people that stress can sometimes be beneficial for performance improves how they physiologically and cognitively experience stress. More specifically, changing their mindset in this way can engender more fluid stress responses, which in turn enhances their ability to generate more creative ideas when under stress.

Another intervention offers a way to combat the negative effects of stress during salary negotiations. There is evidence that the stress and anxiety of salary negotiations can increase cortisol and impair performance. However, results of an experiment also reveal this dynamic can be reversed simply by changing how people appraise the anxiety that accompanies stressful situations. When negotiators were given no instruction on how to view their anxiety, cortisol increases did have negative consequences for their performance. Yet when individuals with increased cortisol were told to view their anxiety as beneficial rather than detrimental for negotiation performance, they performed better in their negotiations and walked away with higher salaries.

How does diversity affect group decision making?

I propose a “Body-Centric Theory of Diversity” to help explain the relationship between diversity, stress, and workgroup performance. I theorize that when group members have a fluid stress response to diversity (making them more open and approach oriented), it becomes a catalyst for them to share, consider, and incorporate diverging ideas. When they have a constrictive stress response (which gives rise to social reticence and withdrawal), it inhibits debate, divergent opinions, and the contribution of unique perspectives.

I have also established and found support for a theory of “Hormone-Diversity Fit,” which predicts that groups that are collectively high in testosterone — and thus oriented toward status competitions (i.e., beating other groups) — perform optimally when group diversity is low. In contrast, groups collectively low in testosterone, which should be less oriented toward status competitions and more oriented toward cooperation, experience optimal performance when group diversity is high. In other words, too much collective testosterone maximizes the pains and minimizes the gains of diversity. This research suggests that we should orient groups that are diverse and collectively high in testosterone toward collective goals and cooperative intragroup processes.

Why do even well-intentioned leaders and organizations fall short in achieving their diversity goals?

The majority of research examining when employment discrimination occurs focuses on what I refer to as “gateways” — opportunities in which a door is opened and a “yes” or “no” decision is made (e.g., hiring and promotion). Yet, subtle discrimination can also derive from “pathways” — processes that influence whether a person has knowledge of and access to a gateway (e.g., mentorship and feedback). 

In a field experiment set in academia, professors were contacted by fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities. We found that white males were granted access to meet with faculty members 26 percent more often and more promptly than were women and minorities. However, this bias was only seen for meeting requests for the future — not for same-day meeting requests. This “temporal discrimination effect” is aligned with research showing that decisions about the future can increase reliance on stereotypes, harming outcomes for minorities and women. In other words, the type of deliberative thinking that can be triggered by making choices about the future, relative to making choices for today, may not always lead to socially desirable outcomes. The findings suggest that women and minorities can experience better outcomes when they violate social norms by making last-minute requests rather than following conventional networking norms.

We also found that discrimination is more pronounced in higher-paying academic disciplines (e.g. business, education, human services) and at private universities. This effect did not depend on the representation of women and minorities among the faculty in a discipline or university, suggesting that greater representation is not a panacea for reducing bias.

Another of my recent studies showed that when organizations broaden the term diversity to include a wide array of dimensions — such as cognitive styles and personality traits — it can displace efforts focused on more traditional diversity dimensions, such as race and gender. I have also found that as organizations have sought to transcend tokenism (i.e. having a single female representative to demonstrate gender diversity), they have converged on a similar bias of having two women in coveted positions. Tokenism has been replaced with “twokenism” — and this phenomenon is particularly pronounced for firms under high media scrutiny and concerned with managing their image.