Anxiety + Stress = Confidence?

Absolutely no one likes to be stressed. Who ever jumped for joy when they realized they had to write five more pages of an essay before bed, or just remembered that they’d forgotten to get their significant other an extravagant birthday present? Stress is definitely a word that we correlate with negativity and counter-productivity. Overall, stress is usually a feeling humans don’t embrace, mostly because of the jittery feeling and unseemly forehead wrinkles that can come as a result. This way of thinking confines stress to a negative context. Why? Perhaps in conceptualizing stress as a state of being, it somewhat presents itself as the opposite of content or happiness. Stress is synonymous with distress or discomfort, so why would that ever be positive? Could stress be perceived as positive if applying stress can yield productive outcomes?


‘How can stress lead to something positive’, is what you might be thinking. Well, the teams of Carmen Sandi at EPFL(School of Computer and Communications) and Lorenz Goette at UNIL (University of Lausanne), did a study in which they observed the effects of inducing stress on individuals with both high and low levels of anxiety. In their observations, the experimenters observed the effects stress had on confidence and additionally, discovered a physiological response the body has to stress!


What the experimenters initially tasked themselves with was finding the definitive factors that influence confidence. This is important because, as the article states, confidence is fundamentally what promotes competition. In fueling social competition, confidence is not only integral to the way societies function, but it also shapes human interactions. Furthermore, the two factors that the researchers found to be most strongly correlated with confidence were anxiety and stress. The researchers defined anxiety as the “trait anxiety”, meaning it characterized an individual as being generally worrisome or threatened.


Now finally, the experiment! In order to discern the two types of anxiety, the researchers used trait-anxiety tests that categorized each participant as having high or low anxiety. Then, completely independent of the previous procedure (anxiety test), the participants were broken up into two groups. The first group experienced stress trials in the form of mock job interviews and or difficult math problems. The other group was the control, and therefore did not have to engage in any stress inducing activities. After the stress trials, all participants (both groups) were given a test of confidence. The researchers organized the test as a game which yielded a monetary prize. So participants received two choices, they could take their chance at the money by either entering a lottery or using their IQ scores to directly compete with the IQ of others for the prize (The highest IQ would win).


The results showed that approximately 60% of the control group, or non-stressed participants, chose to use their IQ scores to compete, which the researchers interpreted as indicative of high levels of confidence [regardless of anxiety]. Though in the group where stress trials were imposed, the results of the game varied a bit more. Actually, in the stress-induced group, anxiety scores played an integral part in determining confidence; Those with low anxiety proved to be more confident after experiencing stress (more likely to wager on IQ), and inversely those with high levels of anxiety proved substantially less confident after the stress trials (were less confident in IQ score and chose to enter lottery). Based on the study, stress can promote confidence depending on individuals’ predisposed level of anxiety.


I thought this was super interesting because essentially, understanding your level of anxiety can allow an individual to maximize their confidence and therefore productivity through exposure to higher or lower levels of stress. For instance, I understand that I usually have low levels of anxiety, so when I need to buckle down and get work done, I have to expose myself to stress. Another really fascinating part of this experiment was that the researchers discovered that the hormone cortisol is released (from the top of our kidneys) in response to stress. In low anxiety people, higher confidence was a result of the high levels of cortisol, and vice versa. This supported their previous findings, and also verifying them further through causational biological evidence. Conclusively, I think this experiment was well executed and will help promote further research into stress. Also, although only briefly, the researchers interestingly link socioeconomic status and base levels of anxiety, stating that individuals from more impoverished neighborhoods are more likely to display high levels of anxiety, and do worse under stress. I am not sure if I definitely agree with this statement, but it is definitely an interesting prospect that I’d challenge YOU to think about as well!


Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. (2015, February 18). How stress can lead to inequality. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 18, 2015 from

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