The Surprising (Potential) Benefits of Stress

How realistically do you process bad news?

stress helpsIf you’re like most people, the answer is: “not very.”

We’ve got lots of research showing that people change their beliefs when they hear good news. However, they don’t change their views much when they hear bad news.

For example: I might ask you, “what are the odds that — in your lifetime — your house will be burgled?”

You answer “40%.”

Later on, I inform you that the real number is 30%. Given your initial estimate, I just gave you good news! You’re safer than you thought.

When I ask you the same question later, you’re likely to update your answer. You might guess 32%. That number is still high, but much more accurate than it was.

However, if you initially guessed “20%,” then the real number “30%” is bad news. You’re in more danger than you thought!

When I ask you the same question later, you probably won’t update your answer much. You’re likely to say “21%.”

You just didn’t process the bad news.

Surprise! Stress Helps

Recently, researchers wondered if stress helps us process bad news more honestly.

To find out, they invited people to their lab and stressed out half of them.

(The stressed-out half heard they would have to give an impromptu speech in front of judges. And, they were given challenging math problems to solve.)

The researchers then asked them several questions like the one above: “how likely is it that your house will be burgled?”

How honestly did these participants process the correct information they got?

As before, the un-stressed participants learned from the good news, but not from the bad.

However, the research team found that stress helps. That is: the participants who worried about their upcoming public speaking gig processed the bad news as well as the good.

Next Steps

The research team double checked their results with fire fighters in Colorado. They got the same results. That’s helpful news.

However, all of this research focuses on adults. The average age in the first study was about 25 years. In the second study, 43 years.

We know that adolescents and children process emotions quite differently. So: we should cross our fingers and hope that the researchers try out their idea with school-aged children.

The more we understand the benefits as well as the detriments of stress, the better we can help our students navigate the appropriate challenges that school provides.


For further thoughts on stress in schools, check out this earlier blog article by Rose Hendricks.

And, for fun, here’s a video of the lead researcher talking about some of his earlier work:

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