two roads between trees




Josephine is the director of marketing at a genetics company. She loves her job, but it’s very stressful. She’s in charge of a new product launch, and the deadline is approaching. One of her best team members had to take a leave of absence for a medical emergency and she doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Things aren’t likely to get less stressful for several months.

Josephine’s husband, Alex, has a dilemma. His parents have been in poor health, and they’ve taken a turn for the worse. They live 500 miles away. Alex doesn’t think his parents can live on their own in their house anymore, and there isn’t a nursing home near where they live now. On the other hand, he doesn’t think they’ll want to move to the city where he and Josephine live, and neither he nor his parents can afford to pay for a nursing home in the city. He’s the only child, so there’s really no one else who can help out with his parents, or with these decisions about what to do.

Alex is an IT manager at a midsize financial investment firm. Sometimes his job is stressful, but right now the situation with his parents is even more stressful than his work.

What’s likely to happen, then, if Alex brings up the idea about either moving to the small, rural village where his parents live, or finding another place to move where they can all live together in a larger apartment or house? Any of these changes will likely affect both his and Josephine’s careers, as well as their living situation.

Alex feels that he can’t wait much longer to have this conversation with Josephine, but she is under so much stress at work right now, he can’t imagine asking her to make these decisions. He doesn’t think she’ll be able to come up with any good ideas given her current frame of mind and stress level, and he’s reluctant to add to her troubles.

What should Alex do? Should he wait until Josephine’s work stress goes down to have this conversation and make any big decisions? What effects will stress have on both Alex and Josephine’s decision-making?

The Complicated Relationship Between Stress And Decision-Making

Mara Mather and Nichole Lighthall (2012) reviewed the research on stress and decision making. They defined stress as:

“Experiences that are emotionally or physiologically challenging” that “elicit sympathetic nervous system responses and stimulate the release of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol in humans) that mobilize the body’s resources to respond to a challenge.”

Physical stress and psychological stress affect both the dopamine reward pathways in the brain and the feedback loops that affect the assessment of risk and reward.

When making a decision under stress, people remember and apply what they’ve learned and experienced in the past that ended with a positive outcome. And they tend to ignore what they’ve learned or experienced in the past that ended with a negative outcome.

This means that if either Josephine or Alex have faced similar family-related and work-related stresses before and there was a positive outcome (they made some life or career changes, but it ended up being a good thing), they will remember those experiences now, while under stress, and those past, positive-ending experiences will influence the decisions they make now.

If they had similar experiences in the past that had a negative outcome (the life or career changes they made didn’t advance them, but were negative), they will tend to forget about those experiences and those experiences will not influence the decisions they make now.

The Interesting Gender Twist

But there’s another consideration to take into account. It turns out that men and women react differently when a decision involves immediate risk-taking.

If people have to make an immediate decision while under stress, one that involves choosing between a safe option (less potential gain, but less risk of loss) or a riskier option (higher potential gain, but also higher potential loss), men tend to go for the riskier option and women tend to go for the safer option.

Figure 21.1 shows a flowchart of all these decisions.

So what does this mean for Josephine and Alex? If Alex brings it up now, and suggests that they move and look for new jobs right away, Josephine (being under a lot of stress) is likely to perceive this as an immediate risk and therefore go for whatever is the safer option for her. As mentioned earlier, they will both tend to remember similar decisions where things worked out well, but if Alex pushes for an immediate decision, Josephine will tend to go to safer options and Alex to riskier options.

  1. Taking all of this into account, it would be best if Alex did one of two things:
    Wait till Josephine is under less stress.
  2. Talk about it now, but not with the idea of having to make an immediate decision.

FIGURE 21.1 Decision-making under stress.

Implications Of Stress For Design

So that was the summary of what Alex should do about talking to Josephine, but what are the implications of these stress effects for design?

Let’s take an example:

You have a career website and app that help people take short and long-term steps to a better career. You provide a comprehensive set of services, including advice, job searching, and help with preparing resumes and work portfolios.

People can use just a few of your services, or they can purchase a package of many services.

Some people who sign up for your services are men, and some are women. Some are under stress ( just lost my job!) and others are not (wondering if this might be a good time to look around for a new position). If you knew their gender and their overall stress level, you’d be better able to advise them.

If people are under stress when they purchase your services, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If they’ve had any kind of similar positive experience, then the current stress might even help them make a decision to move forward.

In this situation, it would be useful for you to add in a customization part of your package. If you can get people to fill out a survey about stress level, and provide some data about their gender and past experiences with career moves, you could then create some algorithms that would help you help them.

For example, if you have a man using your app and he’s currently under a fair amount of stress, but has had some positive experiences with career changes, then he’ll be open to ideas for change. If, on the other hand, he hasn’t had positive career change experiences, and he’s under stress, then he’ll be less likely to be open to big changes right now.


  • When people are under stress as they make a decision, remind them of previous similar experiences they’ve had. When they recall similar experiences, they’ll tend to remember only the positive experiences, and those positive experiences will make them more willing to make a decision.
  • When your target audience is primarily women who are under stress, provide them with options that pose low risk. They’re unlikely to choose an option that has high risk.
  • When your target audience is primarily men who are under stress, provide them with options that have a high potential gain, even if those options include a high potential risk.
  • When you’re designing for a target audience of both men and women, provide options that are both safe and risky.
  • When possible, try to determine the gender, past experience, and level of stress of your target audience, so you can customize your design accordingly.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *