Focusing on past successes can help you make better decisions

In the journals

Published: April, 2021

People with anxiety or depression often have trouble making sound decisions. But a study suggests their judgment can improve if they focus on past successes instead of mistakes. The findings were published online Dec. 22, 2020, by the journal eLife.

Researchers recruited 86 adults, divided into three groups. In one group were people diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder or major depression. Another group consisted of people who showed anxiety or depression symptoms, like excessive worrying and not feeling good about the future, but were not clinically diagnosed. The final group included those without anxiety or depression.

Everyone played a computer game in which they repeatedly chose between two shapes or colors. Their choice either delivered a mild shock for a wrong selection or gave an award for a correct one. The probability of a shape or color providing a reward or a shock was predictable at some points and volatile in others. According to the researchers, this exercise was intended to simulate real-life probabilistic decision-making situations, where people use past positive or negative results to guide their current decisions.

They found that the people who had depression or anxiety or common symptoms of either had trouble keeping pace with the changes and thus made more wrong choices. In comparison, those in the group without depression or anxiety consistently made right choices.

The researchers believed the findings were related to how people use their past decisions. They proposed that people with depression and anxiety focus on what they did wrong and worry about making another mistake, whereas people without the disorders use their past choices as guidance to make better ones. The researchers noted that treatment like cognitive behavioral therapy could help people with anxiety and depression — and anyone who struggles with decision making — gain more confidence by learning to focus on past successes instead of failures.

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