Different profiles of decision making and physiology under varying levels of stress in trained military personnel

Katherine R. Gamble, Jean M. Vettel, Debra J. Patton, Marianna D. Eddy, F. Caroline Davis, Javier O. Garcia, Derek P. Spangler, Julian F. Thayer, Justin R. Brooks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Decision making is one of the most vital processes we use every day, ranging from mundane decisions about what to eat to life-threatening choices such as how to avoid a car collision. Thus, the context in which our decisions are made is critical, and our physiology enables adaptive responses that account for how environmental stress influences our performance. The relationship between stress and decision making can additionally be affected by one's expertise in making decisions in high-threat environments, where experts can develop an adaptive response that mitigates the negative impacts of stress. In the present study, 26 male military personnel made friend/foe discriminations in an environment where we manipulated the level of stress. In the high-stress condition, participants received a shock when they incorrectly shot a friend or missed shooting a foe; in the low-stress condition, participants received a vibration for an incorrect decision. We characterized performance using signal detection theory to investigate whether a participant changed their decision criterion to avoid making an error. Results showed that under high-stress, participants made more false alarms, mistaking friends as foes, and this co-occurred with increased high frequency heart rate variability. Finally, we examined the relationship between decision making and physiology, and found that participants exhibited adaptive behavioral and physiological profiles under different stress levels. We interpret this adaptive profile as a marker of an expert's ingrained training that does not require top down control, suggesting a way that expert training in high-stress environments helps to buffer negative impacts of stress on performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)73-80
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
StatePublished - Sep 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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