Stress and gullibility

David MoonBlog

You’ve always heard to never make a significant judgement when you are stressed or anxious – whether you are contemplating an investment or evaluating news about a dog muzzle being used as a weapon in a hate crime. Recent research explains the science behind this sage advice.

A July Journal of Neuroscience article described a study explaining why people are quicker to jump to the worst conclusions when they are emotional. As I was recently reading the article, I overheard a perfectly timed television news story was about some backwards Tennessee hillbillies attempting to intimidate the state’s (now former) top vaccine official by sending her a dog muzzle. Dr. Michelle Fiscus reported receiving a package containing the dog muzzle, an anonymous threat in response to her public memo about minors being vaccinated for COVID-19 without parental permission. “Whoever sent it must not know me very well,” she bragged. “That’s for a beagle, but I’m a pit bull.”

Dr. Pit Bull’s story and the apparent attempt to intimidate her immediately gained wide national attention – at least until investigators from the Tennessee Department of Homeland Security found that the dog muzzle was purchased with Dr. Fiscus’ personal American Express card from her own Amazon account.

Fiscus denies sending the muzzle to herself.

Practically everything related to COVID produces an emotional response. The fear of losing a loved one. Disgust at people’s beliefs about masks. Frustration with changing scientific understanding of a complex epidemiological problem. It is that intense emotion that makes people highly susceptible to believing almost anything about the disease, and highly reactive to things like a strange claim about a dog muzzle.

The University College of London researchers featured in the Journal of Neuroscience article found that when people are stressed, they give stronger weight to evidence that supports undesirable conclusions. That is, regardless of the quality or quantity of a person’s research, if the person is stressed, he requires a lower burden of proof to conclude that a situation is undesirable. Strategic reasoning takes a backseat to the whims of emotion.

When parts of the brain involved in emotional processing are highly activated, it correlates with the kinds of decisions people make. This explains why intelligent and otherwise very rational people will invest in crazy products that don’t pass a low-bar smell test simply because they are worried about how to generate enough retirement income with interest rates still hovering near zero. Or why people sell their stocks after a significant drop. Sure, history and logic tell me that the stock market will recover, but what if it doesn’t? Or what if I die before it recovers?

When stressed, be mindful of what you allow to influence you.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.